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.

Week 411: My Father’s People, by Stanley Cook

The poems of the Yorkshire poet and schoolteacher Stanley Cook (1922-1991) are infused with a strong sense both of place and of a vanished way of life whose fading years he caught and celebrated. Of course, it has always been part of a poet’s role to be a bridge between present and past, but perhaps never more so than in the case of Cook’s generation and my own that followed it, which saw a time of unprecedented social and technological change. We may tend to forget, in this age obsessed with the immediate, just how far back into the past knowledge from personal acquaintance can reach, and how much of that past it can preserve if only we think to ask the right questions at the right time. When I was small a great-great aunt of some kind came to visit us: she was a centenarian, born around 1850. We walked down the garden path together. Sadly at that age I had no appreciation of the fact that I was in the presence of someone who had been a child at the time of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and who might in her turn have walked with people who stood with other mourners in the streets of London to watch Nelson’s coffin pass on its way to St Paul’s. I just thought she looked like a small brown wizened monkey, and I do not recall that we had anything to say to one another. At least it was different with my mother, born in 1908, whose anecdotes gave me a window on to a world of lamplighters, muffin-men and hopscotch played in leafy suburban roads where the only traffic was horse-drawn. Stanley Cook’s poems give me the same sense of vicarious, elegiac knowledge. This poem is from his collection ‘Signs of Life’ (Peterloo Poets, 1972).

My Father’s People

In Gainsborough, South Kelsey, Morton and Scotter
The apple trees print a forgotten alphabet
On parchment of ground beside the inherited
Rosy brick of cottages and farms;
Streets made to measure horse and cart still serve
The shabby numbered gates of once busy works,
The unemployed that no longer dress up to sign on:
And I could panic that all my uncles and cousins
Wh once worked here are dead, only alive
In flashes of anecdote from aging widows.
For a family supposed to be fond of its stomach
That killed and hung its pigs and made one mouthful
Of cheesecakes and tarts they had indifferent health
Those connoisseurs of chitterlings and chines
Living on one lung or dying of ulcers.
Failing a poem, what else would they do but eat
The beautiful land I too find fascinating?
Poor writers, who gathered only at funerals
Or added to a Christmas card
’Mother died this June’.

Stanley Cook

Week 410: The Death of Falstaff, by William Shakespeare

I sometimes wonder how much Shakespeare really intended Falstaff. One imagines it all starting with a ‘note to self: how about comic fat character to give the groundlings a laugh?’, and then Falstaff turns up, marches in, and takes over the place. I first met this larger-than-life character at a fairly young age and found him very entertaining but a bit confusing. I could not help comparing him with English literature’s other great subversive antihero, William Brown, who like Falstaff had a band of faithful acolytes, a fine line in rhetorical self-justification and a sturdy disdain for the values and conventions of his time. I’m afraid that morally the comparison did Falsaff no favours. William might have had his faults, but he was essentially honourable, and you wouldn’t have caught him going round stabbing corpses and trying to take the credit for killing them. Still, I felt keenly the increasing pathos of the old rogue’s rejection by the cold-hearted Prince Hal, and was glad that Shakespeare, a third of the way through ‘Henry IV Part 2’, at least gave him a fine sendoff, in a scene that manages to be both funny – the Hostess trying to reassure the dying Knight that he need not to be thinking about God just yet – and yet do justice to the mystery and solemnity of death.

ACT II SCENE III

London. Before a tavern.

Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and Boy

PISTOL

Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.

BARDOLPH

Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!

HOSTESS

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

William Shakespeare

Week 409: 51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily, by Hamish Henderson

When you first read this poem, written during the Second World War, you may be forgiven for wondering if half of it is written in Scots Gaelic, but no, it’s English, Jim, just not as we Sassenachs know it, and a little persistence and recourse to a glossary (see foot of poem) soon sorts it out, to reveal a wistful, complex, ambivalent poem of leavetaking. The war-weary swaddies (soldiers) are not sorry to be leaving Sicily, and yet there are things about it they will miss: this alien land has become something of a home for them, offering bright rooms, wine and kindly women, and the music of the pipes as they leave chimes with the mood of that strange grey sky over the Strait of Messina in a lament for days of comradeship and adventure. This rather ties in with the experiences of men that I knew when I was young, who had served in the Second World War. They seemed to be evenly split between those who had loathed the whole brutal experience and simply wanted to forget it and those who had had, or claimed to have had, the time of their lives and were finding peacetime existence something of an anticlimax. Maybe the latter were those who had never seen action, but this did not always seem to be the case; maybe they were just whistling in the dark, but again, that did not always seem to be true. It was all a bit morally confusing.  There is a great pipe tune to go with the words. Of the singers who have covered the song, I think Dick Gaughan deserves a special mention. 

51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come round for his vino the day
The sky o’er Messina is unco an’ grey
An’ a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn the ferry’s awa’
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae name can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin’ ava
He’s beezed himsel’ up for a photy an’ a’
Tae leave with his Lola, his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Hamish Henderson

pipie = pipe major
dozie = sleepy
vino = wine
fey = acting in a strange manner, as if having a presentiment
unco = strange, unusual
chaulmers = rooms
shaw = wood
kyles = straits
smoor the wiles = obliterate (literally smother) your fascination (one smoors a fire)
drummie = drum major
beezed = polished (beezin =  spit and polish)
we’ll a mind = we’ll all remember
shielin = hut
byres and bothies = cow sheds and cottages
shebeens = boozers, drinking dens
whaur = where

Week 408: I Am Roerek, by Sheenagh Pugh

Roerek was a minor king of Norway in the saga times, and the first settlers in Iceland, not counting a few Irish monks, were emigrants from Norway who were, according to tradition, fleeing from civil strife brought about by the rule of King Harald I. And that’s all you really need to know to enjoy this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, who has a delightful gift for retrieving characters that have fallen through the cracks of history.

I Am Roerek

I am Roerek: I was king
of a little scrap of Norway;
large or small, I would not part
with what I had.

I fought a man whose luck
swallowed mine; he blinded me,
but being a good Christian
he wouldn’t kill me,

just kept me about his court,
where I spent my spare time
earnestly attempting his life.
After the third try

he said: don’t you ever give up?
and shipped me to Iceland.
I stayed a winter with this man
and that: we always quarrelled.

Now I lie under a hill,
hear the muffled wind shifting
over the grass, uneasy
like the sea in a shell.

I am the only king
to lie in a land too stubborn
for kings; an edgy country.
it suits me well,

for I am one who would not
co-operate; tailor my wants
to fit reality. Roerek: king
and cosmic nuisance.

Sheenagh Pugh

Week 407: So Many Summers, by Norman MacCaig

‘So Many Summers’ by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) is a good example of how a poem can be formally constrained and seemingly transparent in its language, yet dense enough with meaning to open up whole avenues of reflection. What is it about the juxtaposition of those two images, of hind’s skeleton and decaying boat, that resonates so? And what is this malice that time adds? As I interpret these lines, it is the way that the living thing becomes indistinguishable from the artefact: that once life has departed from the animate it too is no more than a collection of molecules, subject to exactly the same laws of decay as anything else. But do the phrases ‘neat geometries’ and ‘already dead but still to die’ suggest something about the power of art to preserve for a while some stripped-down quintessence of a thing, before its final dissolution and oblivion? I am reminded here of Keith Douglas’s lines: ‘Remember me when I am dead/And simplify me when I am dead’. And what precisely is the tone and message of the last line: ‘So many summers, and I have lived them too’? Is this a wry recognition that his own time too is coming to an end? Or, read with an emphasis on the ‘lived’, is it a kind of defiant gratitude for his own survival, for having been allowed this enduring richness of experience? 

For me, this is definitely one of those poems where you wish you had had the chance to discuss it with its creator, with the caveat, of course, that poets themselves do not always fully understand, or at least, cannot always articulate in other words, what it is that has been given them to say during the writing of the poem. 

So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind’s neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one –
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Norman MacCaig

Week 406: Against Geologies, by David Sutton

Our wedding anniversary yesterday, and this year for the first time my wife and I agreed not to buy each other cards, given all the hassle with masks, hand sanitisers etc currently attached to going into shops. So I thought the least I could do for my companion of fifty-four years was to dig out this one from my ‘Collected Poems’ and rededicate it to her as some token of recompense for all those times when the process of composition has made me less than usually attentive to her discourse or, as she likes to put it, when I have been away with the fairies.

Against Geologies

Our seconds rain like shells of lime
To build great thicknesses of time:
We watch the secret moments fall
Anonymous beyond recall,
Since who will look for you and me
In those white beds of history?

But if they do, with prying pen
When all our now has turned to then,
Let them not think, because they find
Some particle we left behind,
They know the vanished sea above
That was our salt and sunlit love.

These words I leave for them to learn
Like lily’s stem or print of fern
Are but our shadow in the stone
And all the rest is ours alone.
Then what a world of touch and talk
Shall lie compacted into chalk.

David Sutton

Week 405: Full Moon and Little Frieda, by Ted Hughes

This must be one of the best-known and best-loved of all Ted Hughes’s poems, but again I include it just in case anyone’s missed it.

It is not, I think, a poem that needs to be over-analysed. Yes, one can link it to Ted’s shamanistic preoccupations, to moon goddesses, feminine principles and so on, but for me it is a poem about primal wonder. On the one hand there is the wonder of the small child – I believe Ted’s daughter Frieda was between one and two at the time – at an extraordinary fact, at the existence a great round silver rock floating in the sky in the earth’s backyard. But equally, on the other hand, the closing two lines suggest that there is a reciprocated wonder on the part of the universe at an even more extraordinary fact, that a collection of cells should come together, grow, be aware of it, and give it names. And just as the child brings to its act of primal perception nothing beyond the bare name, so, I would claim, we need interpose no baggage of our own between ourselves and this beautiful and tender poem.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –

And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.

‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon, Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

Week 404: The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

Philip Larkin famously claimed that the ‘myth kitty’ was exhausted, meaning that it was time to give up writing poems that relied on the convenient shorthand of tropes from a shared  classical culture, and one can see that for him this was a necessary part of his literary program of reclaiming poetry for the common reader by rooting it in the accessible ordinary. But centuries of shared tradition are not so easily put aside, and in the right hands, and used in the right way, the myth kitty can still retain much of its old potency. As in this densely woven poem by Seamus Heaney, where we have allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (‘damned if I look back’), Pan chasing the nymph Syrinx (‘a fleet god gaining/Upon you turned to a reed’), the Persephone myth (the scattered trail of stanza two) and just for good measure a reference to Hansel and Gretel from Germanic folktale.

But these allusions do not supplant the basic human story here, merely add a layer of resonance to it, and that story appears to be one of regret for a more innocent time of young love, and an apprehension that the poet’s wife and marriage have suffered too much from his divided loyalties. Nothing is made explicit, and yet I think the poem can be seen as echoing the reproach that Heaney puts in the mouth of his wife in another poem, ‘An Afterwards’: ‘You left us first, and then those books, behind’.

The result, as so often with Heaney, is a poem finely balanced and finely expressed. It is true that a reader unfamiliar with Orpheus and Eurydice, Pan and Persephone, and possibly these days even Hansel and Gretel, will miss out on a dimension of the poem and may feel excluded by it, but others will enjoy having the echoes stirred for them. Larkin may not have approved, but Heaney too was a reclaimer.

The Underground

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tense as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Seamus Heaney

Week 403: Musée des Beaux Arts, by W.H.Auden

I think this is one of W.H.Auden’s finest poems, showing his ability to reflect generally on the human condition while never losing sight of the concrete. It’s probably too well known to need any recommendation from me, but just in case…

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H.Auden