Week 527: ‘Late Came The God’, by Rudyard Kipling

Can a poem be powerful yet also, viewed rationally, a bit daft? If so, then I think this one by Rudyard Kipling certainly manages it. It is intimately associated with Kipling’s short story ‘The Wish House’, which it prefixes in his 1926 collection ‘Debits and Credits’, and that story itself is very odd, yet also quite masterful in its way. It concerns a woman Grace Ashcroft, who, after various affairs in which she received affection that she did not return, late in life falls deeply in love with a man called Harry Mockler. He becomes ill and she goes to a ‘wish house’ that is inhabited by a ‘Token’, some kind of wraith or supernatural being who can, or so she believes, grant her the power to take on herself another’s suffering. Which she does, saying ‘Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ’Arry Mockler, for love’s sake’. Subsequently she injures her ankle and then develops an ulcer on her leg that turns cancerous, causing her great pain.

It is a moving tale and the poem is harrowing in its uncompromising evocation of disease and pain, but the problem I have with it is that the world simply does not work like that. Empathy is a fine thing, but it has its practical limits. I knew a little girl who died of childhood leukaemia after a short and suffering life: I am sure that if there had been any way for her loving parents to take pain away from her and into themselves they would have done so. The truth, I fear, lies much more in the direction of Robert Frost’s bleak assessment: ‘The nearest friends can go/With anyone to death, comes so far short/They might as well not try to go at all.’

Nonetheless, the poem and story bear witness to what a strange and powerful writer, quite unlike anyone else, Kipling at his best could be. As for their psychology, given that the story first appeared, in magazine form, in 1924 it is hard not to see in them a wish-fulfilment fantasy on Kipling’s part, a vicarious projection of himself into the narrative. He was racked with guilt over the death of his son John in the Great War, having pulled strings to get him a commission in the army after he had initially been rejected due to poor eyesight. Maybe one can hear in that ‘for love’s sake’ Kipling’s own sublimated version of David’s great cry in the Bible: ‘Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

Note: ‘the God’ – I take this to refer to Eros, the god of love, feeling scorned because of Grace Ashcroft’s earlier behaviour in affairs of the heart, and now exacting vengeance. Those averse to divinities, vengeful or otherwise, can simply take it as karma.

‘Late Came The God’ (from ‘The Wish House’)

Late came the God, having sent his forerunners who were not regarded –
Late, but in wrath;
Saying: ‘The wrong shall be paid, the contempt be rewarded
On all that she hath.’
He poisoned the blade and struck home, the full bosom receiving
The wound and the venom in one, past cure or relieving.

He made treaty with Time to stand still that the grief might be fresh –
Daily renewed and nightly pursued through her soul to her flesh –
Mornings of memory, noontides of agony, midnights unslaked for her,
Till the stones of the street of her Hells and her Paradise ached for her.

So she lived while her body corrupted upon her.
And she called on the Night for a sign, and a Sign was allowed,
And she builded an Altar and served by the light of her Vision –
Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,
Resolute, selfless, divine.
These things she did in Love’s honour…
What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!

Rudyard Kipling

Week 526: Sandra Lee Scheuer, by Gary Geddes

Sandra Lee Scheuer was a student at Kent State University. Her subject was speech therapy. She died in 1970, aged twenty, when she was shot in the neck with a bullet from the M-1 rifle of an Ohio National Guardsman. Three other unarmed students were also killed in the shootings. At the time a student demonstration against the escalation of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was taking place on the campus. There are differing views regarding the magnitude of the threat posed by rock-throwing students to National Guardsmen armed only with rifles and grenade launchers, but all seem to agree on one thing: that Sandra had nothing to do with the demonstration and was merely walking between classes.

The poem appears in a 1980 collection by the Canadian poet Gary Geddes (b. 1940). It must have been hard to write it without overt anger, yet what dominates is pity, and maybe the poem is all the more effective for it. Note how the poet weaves into the narrative Sandra’s subject, speech therapy, such that the silencing of her voice and consequent loss of her healing gift becomes emblematic of the whole violent suppression of the freedom to speak out.

‘or put a flower in his rifle barrel’ – this refers to an incident the day before when another student, Allison Beth Krause, had put a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman’s rifle, saying ‘Flowers are better than bullets’. Allison too was killed in the shootings the next day.

Sandra Lee Scheuer

(Killed at Kent State University, May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard)

‘You might have met her on a Saturday night,
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step

between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.

She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.

In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could no doubt more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.

While the armouries burned, she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.

And while they milled and shouted on the commons,
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That’s it, SSSSSSSS,

tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?

As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,

was going down on one knee, as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,

severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech;

and who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?

Gary Geddes

Week 525: The Remembrance, by David Sutton

Remembrance Sunday last weekend, and again a surprisingly large crowd from our village gathered round the memorial cross at the corner of the green. I remember when we moved here in the early seventies there would be no more than a rather pathetic handful of attendees, but since then we have had the Falklands, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the hope that war between civilised societies might be becoming a thing of the past has had to be put aside, with a resultant renewed awareness of freedom’s price, and a desire to remember those who have paid it on our behalf. So this week I offer on this theme one of my own poems, that I wrote after a somewhat larger gathering on Shirburn Hill to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995.

The Remembrance (May 8, 1995)

We crowd the hilltop, standing in loose ranks,
A thousand, maybe, come from all around.

Scents of hawthorn, woodsmoke, trampled grass.
A chilling wind; grey battlements of cloud
Rimmed with gold, pale shafts of hidden fire
Fanwise to the west.
                           Eight thirty-three.

A queue for hot dogs; skittish children; prams;   
A roped-off bonfire darting orange flames
This way and that, on cold upswirling air.
The minutes tick away. We wait, unsure.

For we were young: what grief was this of ours?
A rumour from beyond the sky, a shadow
That fled before our childhood. Fifty years
Is long for men, in life and memory.
Yet we knew names; we saw the sad closed faces.
Their grief has been our freedom.                                                                                                                           A maroon
Cracks like a whip. A deep obedient hush
Falls on the hill; coats rustle; one small child
Cries and is rocked. We stand. Two minutes pass.
Mist on the plain beneath, a white half-moon
Strengthening above.
                           Then bugle notes,
A roll of drums. The solemn statues move,
Speak and are ordinary. We go back,
Torches aloft; cars nose the narrow lane.
Something is served: at least, our silence said
All that the living can say to the dead.

David Sutton

Week 524: From ‘Lament For The Misty Corrie’, by Duncan Ban MacIntyre

This week an extract from a long poem by the Highland poet and forester Duncan Ban MacIntyre, or to give him his Gaelic name Donnchadh bàn Mac an t-Saoir. Duncan (1724-1812) is generally accounted one of the greatest of Gaelic language poets, and in this piece he laments the changes wrought by careless stewardship on a landscape that he has long loved. In many ways it seems ahead of its time, and bears comparison with John Clare’s poignant lament for a countryside changed by the Enclosure Act (see week 52). Of course, there had from early times been a strong tradition of nature verse in Celtic literature that is largely missing from English, at least up until the time of the Romantic revival: we have, for example, lyrics in early Irish celebrating the natural world purely for its own sake, and the poetry of the mediaeval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is full of cuckoos, spring in the greenwood and the like. Yet perhaps it is only about this time, in the eighteenth century, that we see a nascent spirit of conservation emerging. This may seem odd given that man had been changing and despoiling the natural world from time immemorial, with, for example, huge clearances of woodland, but maybe up till that point it had just never dawned on people that the earth’s resources might not be infinite, or that its beauty could be irreparably defaced.

Speaking of conservation, may I make a plea for my readers to support the Scots Gaelic language, now down to its last hundred thousand or so native speakers, in any way they can. This is not my fight, of course – as far as I can determine my ancestry is irredeemably Saxon with no trace of the Celt – but anyone who loves language and literature must grieve at the idea that the great blaze of Gaelic poetry and song should be allowed to survive only as few stray sparks, or even go out completely. It can’t be denied that Scots Gaelic is a fairly difficult language for an English speaker, largely because of the pronunciation – you have to remember that half the letters are silent and half the ones that aren’t sound nothing like their English counterparts – but there are some great online resources (try the learngaelic.scot site) – and also a wealth of song on YouTube, much of which I find achingly beautiful.

The translation that follows is my own. It’s a bit free in places – close translations from Scots Gaelic don’t work too well – but I hope it captures a little of the spirit of the piece.

corrie: a kind of basin with steep sides and a gently sloping floor formed in mountainous regions by the erosive action of a glacier, also known as a cirque or cwm.

From ‘Cumha Choire a’ Cheathaich’

Tha choille bh’ anns an fhrith ud,
Na cuislean fada, direach,
Air tuiteam is air crionadh
Sios as an rusg;
Na prisein a bha brioghor
‘Nan dosaibh tiugha, lionmhor,
Air seacadh mar gu’n spiont’ iad
A nios as an uir;

Na failleanan bu bhoidhche,
Na slatan is na h-ògain,
‘S an t-ait am biodh an smeorach
Gu mothar a’ seinn ciuil,
Tha iad uil’ air caochladh,
Cha d’ fhuirich fiodh na fraoch ann ;
Tha ‘m mullach bharr gach craoibhe,
‘S am maor ‘ga thoirt diubh.

Tha Uisge Srath na Dìge
Na shruthladh dubh gun sìoladh,
Le barraig uaine lìth-ghlais,
Gu mì-bhlasta grànd’;
Feur-lochain is tàchair
An cinn an duilleag-bhàthte –
Chan eil gnè tuilleadh fàs
Anns an àit’ ud san àm;

Glumagan a’ chàthair
Na ghlugaibh domhainn sàmhach,
Cho tiugh ri sùghan càtha,
Na làthaich ‘s na phlam;
Seann bhùrn salach ruadhain,
Cha ghlaine ‘ghrunnd na uachdar –
Gur coslach ri muir ruaidh e,
Na ruaimle feadh stang.

Duncan Ban MacIntyre

From ‘Lament for the Misty Corrie’

The woods where once the deer roamed,
The long trunks straight and slender,
Are withered even to the bark
And fallen now forever.
The bushes rich in berries,
So plentiful and thick,
Lie rootless on the soil now,
They plucked up every stick.

The shoots that were the fairest,
The thickets of young trees,
The places where the thrush would sing
Its gentle melodies,
Are changed beyond all knowing,
No wood nor heather there,
And since the bailiff took them
No tree but lopped and bare.

The waters of the burn run black
Like rinsings from a drain
And covered with a foul green scum
Will not run clear again.
The tarns are choked with grass now,
Where water-lilies show
Only the stagnance of a place
Where nothing else will grow.

Like bogland pits its potholes
So limpid in their time
Are filled with a thick porridge
Of sediment and slime.
A scurf of dirty water,
Unclean above, below –
So through the muddied river
The rust-red waters flow.

Week 523: Desert Places, by Robert Frost

This week another of my favourite Frost poems, a masterclass in profound simplicity. This is the darker, less folksy Frost that many prefer, lonely, self-doubting, alienated, the poet of ‘Acquainted With The Night’, ‘Design’, ‘To Earthward’ and ‘The Most Of It’. It is worth dwelling on that ‘absent-spirited’. Does that simply mean that his mind is elsewhere, perhaps in happier times and climes, or that the fight has all but gone out of him, that he is on the verge of surrendering to the desolation, almost relishing the fact that it asks of him nothing, offers him nothing and is not even aware of him? But then the last stanza is paradoxically defiant, a wryly stoical acceptance of his own condition: when he speaks of ‘my own desert places’ he is referring, of course, not only to the winter fields near his home but to the cold blank places in his own mind for which those fields serve as what the critics call an ‘objective correlative’. In the end it is a painfully honest poem that manages to conjure an affirmation, even a kind of austere beauty, out of desolation.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

Week 522: From ‘Sunset Song’, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

One of my all-time favourite prose works is ‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-1935), a novel set in the north-east of Scotland in the early 20th century.

It has a lyrical style, and an unforgettable cast of characters, including the free-spirited Chris herself, her mother, her brother Will, her vile bully of a father, her husband Ewan, broken by the Great War, her kindly neighbour Chae Strachan and, eventually and briefly, her soulmate Long Rob the miller.

‘Sunset Song’ is actually the first of a trilogy entitled ‘A Scots Quair’, so the story is continued in two more parts, ‘Cloud Howe’ and ‘Grey Granite’, but I have to confess that I managed only a few chapters of the former before giving up with the words from Wordworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ running in my head: ‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’, and I never got to the third book at all.

Of course, anyone’s reading journey from childhood on is likely to be littered with disappointing sequels. Many children over the years (though maybe not so many these days) have devoured Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Thomas Hughes’s ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, but I suspect that few have ever done more than nibble at ‘Good Wives’ and ‘Tom Brown At Oxford’. As a child blissfully unaware of its allegorical designs on me I enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ but found the rest of the Narnia books fairly forgettable. Parts two to four of T.H.White’s Arthurian epic ‘The Once and Future King’ are worthy enough, but have nothing like the magic of its first book, ‘The Sword In The Stone’. As a devoted fan of Ursula Le Guin’s first three ‘Earthsea’ novels I found the tone of the fourth book ‘Tehanu’ horribly jarring. Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’ is intriguing in its own right, but as a sequel to ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ it is barely in the same universe. And while as a teenager I would have been happy to go along with the young Neil Gaiman’s view that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was not only the best book ever written but the best book that ever could be written, ‘The Silmarillion’ was, let’s face it, a bit of a letdown with its remote style and its claustrophobically mediaeval cosmology in which the earth is created before the sun and mankind is placed in the world ready-formed, concepts which (to the best of my understanding) are not entirely in line with modern scientific thinking.

But I am rambling. Back to ‘Sunset Song’, and two passages that I have chosen to illustrate both the book’s lyrical style and some of its main themes: of dual cultural identity, of being bound to the land and to a way of life that you both resented and loved, and of the struggle to maintain that way of life in the face of a changing world:

‘So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d wake with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of this Scottish land and skies. You saw the faces in firelight, father’s, and mother’s, and the neighbours’, before the lamps lit up, tired and kind, faces dear and close to you, you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true — for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.’


‘And then a queer thought came to her there in the drookèd fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set the Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learnèd, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you.’

drookèd: drenched

Week 521: There Were Roses, by Tommy Sands

This week’s offering was written by the Irish folk-singer Tommy Sands (born 1941), and is based on a true story involving the deaths of two of Tommy’s friends in Northern Ireland in 1974. It seems to me a powerful evocation of those claustrophobic, fear-ridden times. It is not polished verse, with its rough rhyming and slight awkwardnesses of phrasing and scansion that a poet less intent on telling the story might have smoothed over, but I think that in this case its very rawness and awkwardness gives the poem an added authenticity: it’s a work where anger and pity are more important than literary polish.

As a song it has been covered by numerous artists. The version I am most familiar with is actually Cara Dillon’s, but I’ve gone back to what I believe to be Tommy’s original. Cara, in that slightly cavalier way folksingers have, made quite a few changes, dropping some of the verses and using different names for the protagonists, and in fact, I think, improved things somewhat by tightening up the narrative, but I wouldn’t be too happy about people taking it upon themselves to monkey with my own poems, however much it might benefit them, so let’s give Tommy his full due.

There Were Roses

My song for you this evening, it’s not to make you sad,
Nor for adding to the sorrows of this troubled northern land.
But lately I’ve been thinking and it just won’t leave my mind
I’ll tell you of two friends one time who were both good friends of mine.

Allan Bell from Banagh, he lived just across the fields,
A great man for the music and the dancing and the reels.
O’Malley came from South Armagh to court young Alice fair,
And we’d often meet on the Ryan Road and the laughter filled the air.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Though Allan, he was Protestant, and Sean was Catholic born,
It never made a difference for the friendship, it was strong.
And sometimes in the evening when we heard the sound of drums
We said, ‘It won’t divide us. We always will be the one.’

For the ground our fathers ploughed in, the soil, it is the same,
And the places where we say our prayers have just got different names.
We talked about the friends who died, and we hoped there’d be no more.
It’s little then we realized the tragedy in store.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

It was on a Sunday morning when the awful news came round,
Another killing has been done just outside Newry Town.
We knew that Allan danced up there, we knew he liked the band.
But when we heard that he was dead we just could not understand.

We gathered at the graveside on that cold and rainy day,
And the minister he closed his eyes and he prayed for no revenge.
And all the ones who knew him from along the Ryan Road,
They bowed our heads and they said a prayer for the resting of his soul.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Well fear, it filled the countryside.  There was fear in every home
When a car of death came prowling round the lonely Ryan Road.
A Catholic would be killed tonight to even up the score,
‘Oh, Christ!  It’s young O’Malley that they’ve taken from the door.’

‘Allan was my friend,’ he cried.  He begged them with his fear,
But centuries of hatred have ears that cannot hear.
An eye for an eye was all that filled their minds
And another eye for another eye till everyone is blind.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

So my song for you this evening, it’s not to make you sad
Nor for adding to the sorrows of our troubled northern land,
But lately I’ve been thinking and it just won’t leave my mind.
I’ll tell you of two friends one time who were both good friends of mine.

I don’t know where the moral is or where this song should end,
But I wonder just how many wars are fought between good friends.
And those who give the orders are not the ones to die,
It’s Bell and O’Malley and the likes of you and I.

There were roses, roses
There were roses
And the tears of the people
Ran together

Tommy Sands

Week 520: The Voice, by Thomas Hardy

This week another of those poems that I have not featured before on the assumption that everyone at all interested in poetry must already be familiar with them, but maybe with the modern educational curriculum this assumption is no longer justified, so just in case…

This is one of a sequence of poems that Hardy wrote in memory of his dead wife Emma, expressing a grief sharpened by regret for their long estrangement, and it is a poem that champions of Hardy’s verse like to point to as evidence of his greatness. I don’t know how helpful labels like ‘great’ really are when it comes to poetry: personally I tend to think of poems more in terms of being alive or not, as having or lacking that rare electric pulse of truth and urgency. But greatness – I suppose I would say that it is something to do with a unique voice, gifted with the power to create a new verbal landscape and through an intense fusion of thought and emotion expressing a truth both personal and universal. And I certainly wouldn’t deny it to Hardy at his best. Curiously, or perhaps significantly, T.S.Eliot loathed Hardy. Huh.

mead:             meadow
wistlessness:     this appears to be a Hardy coinage, that for me fuses the idea of ‘no longer knowing or being known’ (from the pseudo-archaic verb wist, to know) with the idea of no longer feeling desire (by analogy with wistful, that means ‘longing, yearning with little hope’)
norward:         the direction of the north

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Thomas Hardy

Week 519: Caged Rats, by Ebenezer Elliott

In the wake of the Government’s not entirely successful attempt to sell the idea that one way of helping poor people is by giving tax cuts and bonuses to rich people, I thought this week might be a good time to dig out this rather spirited piece of class warfare by the Victorian poet Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849). Of course, as a poem it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, and belongs more properly to a time when we had a government that was actively and malevolently repressive towards the working classes rather than a government that is, let us charitably assume, doing its possibly inadequate best to deal with a complex spiral of demands and expectations while weathering an economic tempest. I was brought up on tales of Victorian ancestors extracting their own rotten teeth and attempting to perform their own abortions, of hungry children waiting behind their father’s chair to get the kipper skins when he had finished eating the fish (this was practical, not cruel: the breadwinner must be given the energy for his labour or there would simply be no bread), and of old couples being kept apart as they lived out their pensionless days in the workhouse.

In our times we have somewhat different concepts of ‘hardship’ and ‘poverty’, and while it may no longer be true that we have never had it so good, it is perhaps salutary to remember that we have certainly had it worse. Not that that is much consolation to young people in my area faced with starter home property prices at least fifteen times the average starting salary (my first house cost four times mine), and that after emerging from further education saddled with huge debts even after an injection of parental help (in my days a student grant didn’t exactly allow one to lead the high life, but it came without strings and was just enough to give a measure of financial independence). Were my generation truly the lucky ones, living through the last good times of our country? I don’t know, but I worry for my grandchildren.

Elliott had a difficult early life, at one point going bankrupt, and though he eventually became a successful iron merchant and steel manufacturer, the experience of being homeless and out of work gave him a deep and lasting sympathy for the poor. He was a notable opponent of the Corn Laws, basically restrictions on the import of cheap grain in force from 1815 to 1846, which operated to enhance the profits and political power of the landowning class but caused hardship and starvation among the workers. This did not make him popular with his fellow entrepreneurs, and the workers were too busy starving to have much time for poetry, but at least he tried.

Caged Rats

Ye coop us up, and tax our bread,
And wonder why we pine:
But ye are fat, and round, and red,
And fill’d with tax-bought wine.
Thus, twelve rats starve while three rats thrive,
(Like you on mine and me),
When fifteen rats are caged alive,
With food for nine and three.

Haste! Havoc’s torch begins to glow –
The ending is begun;
Make haste! Destruction thinks ye slow;
Make haste to be undone!
Why are ye call’d ‘My Lord’ and ‘Squire’,
While fed by mine and me,
And wringing food, and clothes and fire,
From bread-tax’d misery?

Make haste, slow rogues! prohibit trade,
Prohibit honest gain;
Turn all the good that God hath made
To fear, and hate, and pain;
Till beggars all, assassins all,
All cannibals we be,
And death shall have no funeral,
From shipless sea to sea.

Ebenezer Elliott

Week 518: From ‘The Living Mountain’, by Nan Shepherd

This week I want to put a word in for a work in prose that I find, in the good sense, very poetic. (I am sadly aware, of course, that for most people these days ‘poetic’ has come to be more or less synonymous with ‘obscure, pretentious and artificial’, but I would like to reclaim it for ‘precise, observant, vivid and not too far removed from the idiom and rhythms of common speech’).

The work in question is ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) and is about her lifelong relationship with the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland. Written towards the end of the Second World War, it lay for years unpublished and assumedly unpublishable in the writer’s drawer, as if waiting till the times were ready for it, and finally appeared to a steadily growing acclaim in the nineteen-seventies.

It is a work hard to characterise, that has a transcendent visionary quality but at the same time is firmly rooted in the tangible, in rock and water, bird and flower, the nuances of changing light and weather, and is suffused throughout with a fierce physical joy in both the writer’s own body and the body of the mountain. The Gaels have a word ‘dùthchas’ (pronounced something like ‘doo-khas’) that is not easily translated: it can simply mean ‘one’s country, the place of one’s birth’, but it can mean more than that: an intense feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, ‘a sense of landscape, geography and history combined into one formal order of experience’. Nan Shepherd’s book seems to me a perfect exemplar of dùthchas. It also brings to mind the words that Walter de la Mare used of Edward Thomas: ‘Long-looking, long-desiring, long-loving – these win at last to the inmost being of a thing.’ They certainly allowed Nan Shepherd to win to the heart of her beloved Cairngorms.

I have chosen just a few almost random extracts to give some idea of the book’s style and substance, but really every page has some luminous phrase, some celebratory flash of observation. Just don’t expect a plot, or any help with peak-bagging. This is not a guide to conquering mountains. It is a guide to being part of them.

‘Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating immense distances with an effortless intensity. So on a clear day one looks without any sense of strain from Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs, and out past Ben Nevis to Morar. At midsummer, I have had to be persuaded I was not seeing further even than that. I could have sworn I saw a shape, distinct and blue, very clear and small, further off than any hill the chart recorded. The chart was against me, my companions were against me, I never saw it again. On a day like that, height goes to one’s head. Perhaps it was the lost Atlantis focused for a moment out of time’.


‘To walk out through the top of a cloud is good. Once or twice I have had the luck to stand on a tip of ground and see a pearled and lustrous plain stretch out to the horizons. Far off, another peak lifts like a small island from the smother. It is like the morning of creation.’


‘The Cairngorm water is all clear. Flowing from granite, with no peat to darken it, it never has the golden amber, the ‘horse-back brown’ so often praised in Highlands burns. When it has any colour at all, it is green, as in the Quoich near its linn. It is a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water.’


‘Of plants that carry their fragrance in their leaves, bog myrtle is the mountain example. This grey-green shrub fill the boggy hollows, neighboured by cotton-grass and sundew, bog asphodel and the spotted orchis, and the minute scarlet cups of the lichens. Its fragrance is cool and clean, and like the wild thyme it gives it most strongly when crushed. The other shrub, juniper, is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it afresh now and then to renew the spice. This dead wood has a grey silk skin, impervious to rain. In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden, the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat.’


‘Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and river alike have a green glint when seen between snowy banks, and the smoke from a woodman’s fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blown into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green. A snowy sky is often pure green, not only at sunrise or sunset, but all day; and a snow-green sky looks greener in reflection, either in water or from windows, than it seems in reality. Against such a sky, a snow-covered hill may look purplish, as though washed in blaeberry. On the other hand, before a fresh snowfall, whole lengths of snowy hill may appear a golden green. One small hill stands out from this greenness: it is veiled by a wide-spaced fringe of fir trees, and behind them the whole snowy surface of the hill is burning with a vivid electric blue.’


‘No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world. These moments of quiescent perceptiveness before sleep are among the most rewarding of the day. I am emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky. In midsummer the north glows with light long after midnight is past. As I watch, the light comes pouring round the edges of the shapes that stand against the sky, sharpening them till the more slender have a sort of glowing insubstantiality, as though they themselves were nothing but light.’