Week 378: John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

I confess to having a soft spot for this week’s cheerfully disreputable piece. OK, I’m not sure that the Irish Catholic Church would have approved of John Kinsella’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards familial ties, and I suppose I shouldn’t either, but it’s good fun, and it does show Yeats’s unusual range as a poet – it’s a long way from this sort of thing to poems like ‘Easter 1916’.

John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

A bloody and a sudden end,
Gunshot or a noose,
For Death who takes what man would keep,
Leaves what man would lose.
He might have had my sister,
My cousins by the score,
But nothing satisfied the fool
But my dear Mary Moore,
None other knows what pleasures man
At table or in bed.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

Though stiff to strike a bargain,
Like an old Jew man,
Her bargain struck we laughed and talked
And emptied many a can;
And O! but she had stories,
Though not for the priest’s ear,
To keep the soul of man alive,
Banish age and care,
And being old she put a skin
On everything she said.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

The priests have got a book that says
But for Adam’s sin
Eden’s Garden would be there
And I there within.
No expectation fails there,
No pleasing habit ends,
No man grows old, no girl grows cold
But friends walk by friends.
Who quarrels over halfpennies
That plucks the trees for bread?
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?
 

W.B.Yeats

Week 377: The Old Couple, by F. Pratt Green

A poem that in its theme and sad tenderness is reminiscent of Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘One Flesh’ (see week 23), though it incorporates more in the way of social detail. Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was a Methodist minister perhaps best known as a writer of hymns.

The Old Couple

The old couple in the brand-new bungalow,
Gagged with the milk of municipal kindness,
Fumble their way to bed. Oldness at odds
With newness, they nag each other to show
Nothing is altered, despite the strangeness
Of being divorced in sleep by twin-beds,
Side by side like the Departed, above them
The grass-green of candlewick bedspreads.

In a dead neighbourhood, where it is rare
For hooligans to shout or dogs to bark,
A footfall in the quiet air is crisper
Than home-made bread; and the budgerigar
Bats an eyelid, as sensitive to disturbance
As a distant needle is to an earthquake
In the Great Deep, then balances in sleep.
It is silence keeps the old couple awake.

Too old for loving now, but not for love,
The old couple lie, several feet apart,
Their chesty breathing like a muted duet
On wind instruments, trying to think of
Things to hang on to, such as the tinkle
That a budgerigar makes when it shifts
Its feather weight from one leg to another,
The way, on windy nights, linoleum lifts.

F. Pratt Green

Week 376: The Toome Road, by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is not, I think, a difficult poet, unlike, say, his contemporary Geoffrey Hill who chose to guard his word-hoard with dragons of impassable obscurity. But Heaney did select his words very carefully, and that care merits close attention, as in this poem expressing his feelings of resentment at the presence in his countryside of what to him were after all, regardless of what his political sympathies might be, soldiers of an occupying power. That ‘omphalos’, for example – the omphalos (Greek for navel) was a stone at Delphi that in Greek lore had been placed there by Zeus to mark the centre of the world, and is here used by Heaney as a quietly defiant symbol of the farmland on which his own being was centred, and which is here evoked with a bleakly beautiful precision. I am also fascinated by his choice of the word ‘warbling’ in the second line. Quite right for the sound of heavy tyres, but I just wonder also whether Seamus also had in mind some association with the warble fly, a parasitic fly that burrows under the skin of cattle and lays its eggs – maybe he was thinking of these foreign invaders as resembling such parasites, burrowing under the skin of his countryside? Of course, it is easy to get carried away with this kind of thing – when I was young there was a critical work very much in vogue called ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, which one reviewer tartly dismissed as carrying the remarkable thesis that the more ways there were to misunderstand a poem, the better it was. Anyway, to the poem….

The Toome Road

One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all of those with their back doors on the latch
For the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones…
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.

Seamus Heaney

Week 375: Nottamun Town, by Anon

I can’t say that I have ever been a fan of nonsense verse – as a child I felt rather strongly that you could take your Snark and Boojum and stuff ‘em up your Jumblies – but this strange antique piece, possibly dating from the Middle Ages, is rather different. There is a line in ‘King Lear’ where the disguised Kent observes to Lear ‘This is not altogether fool, my Lord’, and in the same way I feel that this is not altogether a nonsense poem, though I can’t claim to have the key to it. One theory links it to the mediaeval Feast of Fools or to mummers’ plays, another to the ‘World Turned Upside Down’ theme popular with pamphleteers at the time of the English Civil War. I feel myself that while it may be social commentary, it also carries a strong personal note of alienation and despair at the world’s folly.

The poem exists in many somewhat different versions: the one I present here is mainly from the singing of the English folk artist Shirley Collins..

Nottamun Town

In Nottamun Town, in Nottamun Town
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

I rode a big horse that was called a grey mare
Grey mane and grey tail, green stripes down her back
Grey mane and grey tail, green stripes down her back
There weren’t a hair on her that was not coal black

She stood so still threw me to the dirt
She tore at my hide, she bruised my shirt
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain

And the King and the Queen and a company more
Came a-riding behind and a-walking before
Then a stark naked drummer came marching along
With his hands in his bosom a-beating a drum

They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay
They talked all the while, not a word they did say
I called for a cup to drive gladness away
And stifle the dust for it rained the whole day

Sat down on a hard hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me yet I was alone
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born

Anon

Week 374: Surprised by Joy, by William Wordsworth

This week I attended the funeral service of an ex-work colleague, dead before her sixtieth birthday. I know that perceptions of age are relative – nine-year-old Daisy Ashford in ‘The Young Visitors’ writes of ‘an elderly gentleman of 42’ – but certainly from my own present perspective fifty-nine seems way too young to die. Not, of course, as young as Wordsworth’s daughter, but still, it was his great poem of bereavement that came to my mind during the service, so I dedicate this week’s choice to the memory of one I knew as a lively young woman, and to her husband, left like Wordsworth without his ‘heart’s best treasure’.

Surprised by joy

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

William Wordsworth

Week 373: Seen by the Waits, by Thomas Hardy

One to get you in the mood for Christmas, though this being a Hardy poem it would be wise not to expect too much in the way of festive cheer. I like the fact that we are left to form our own conjecture as to exactly why the lady danced on hearing of her husband’s death. My money is on the realisation that it meant she wouldn’t have to spend another Christmas with her in-laws.

Seen By The Waits

Through snowy woods and shady
We went to play a tune
To the lonely manor-lady
By the light of the Christmas moon.

We violed till, upward glancing
To where a mirror leaned,
It showed her airily dancing,
Deeming her movements screened;

Dancing alone in the room there,
Thin-draped in her robe of night;
Her postures, glassed in the gloom there,
Were a strange phantasmal sight.

She had learnt (we heard when homing)
That her roving spouse was dead:
Why she had danced in the gloaming
We thought, but never said.

Thomas Hardy

Week 372: My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning

In this blog I have tried to be sparing in my use of standard anthology pieces, assuming that anyone interested enough to be reading the blog is likely to be already well acquainted with them. But that does result in a bit of self-denial – after all, at least some of the poems in anthologies are there because they are very very good – and anyway there is a chance that my assumption might not be entirely true. And maybe, even if it is, it does no harm to give such poems yet another airing. So this week we have Browning’s masterpiece, ‘My Last Duchess’, a chilling study of male dominance and the destruction of innocence by a murderous possessiveness.

My Last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my Lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”; such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace–all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good; but thanked
Somehow . . . I know not how . . . as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”–and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
–E’en then would be some stooping; and I chuse
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your Master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

Robert Browning