Week 388: The Oracles, by A.E.Housman

A.E.Housman’s philosophy of stoic defiance in the face of adversity found perfect expression in the closing stanza of this poem with its celebration of the Spartan resistance at Thermopylae to the invading Persian army of Xerxes. It is, of course, not without irony that these warriors of a grim, unlovely and anything but democratic society should have come to stand as the ultimate symbol of democratic resistance to tyranny, but still, courage is courage, and it stirs and inspires us. Just as, in a more humane form, it stirs and inspires us today as our doctors, nurses and a volunteer army make their Spartan stand against another enemy out of the East.

Dodona, in a remote region of Greece, was the site of one of the main Greek oracles, second only to the one at Delphi. Rulers and heroes would make their way there to consult with the priestess before major enterprises, though the answers they got tended to be so unhelpfully ambiguous that one wonders why they bothered.

Why ‘benight the air’? The story in Herodotus goes that the Spartans were told how the archers of the Persian host discharged enough arrows to blot out the sun, to which their laconic reply was ‘Good, then we shall be fighting in the shade’.

The Oracles

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain.
When winds were in oakenshaws the and all the cauldrons tolled.
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain.
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that dies must drink it;
And oh, my lass the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.


Week 387: From ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ by Anthony Trollope

Minimal going out and no social contact, and now the libraries have closed – what does one do in this time of plague? Well, for one thing it’s a chance to reread some favourite novels rather than always having something new on the go. So… not ‘Middlemarch’, I listened to that as an audio book only a few weeks ago. ‘Anna Karenina’? Perhaps something a little more upbeat: things do not (spoiler alert!) end well for poor Anna. ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’? – well that at least, quite uncharacteristically for Hardy, has a happy ending, but let’s face it, Hardy completely loses interest in Gabriel and Bathsheba once their troubles are over, and so do we. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’? Great until John Fowles goes all modernist and plays silly b’s with the ending. ‘Sunset Song’? Wonderful, but now I recall I foolishly lent it to someone and never got it back. ‘Kim’? A possible, but I feel I need something nearer to home. No, I think the man for these times is Trollope, in particular his ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, which means that I shall be starting with ‘The Warden’ and so arriving in a week or two at that most naively touching of literary valedictions, the closing paragraph of ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’:

‘And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester. I may not venture to say to him that, in this country, he and I together have wandered often through the country lanes, and have ridden together in the too well-wooded fields, or have stood together in the cathedral nave listening to the peals of the organ, or have together sat at good men’s table, or have confronted together the angry pride of men who were not good. I may not boast that any beside myself have so realised the place, and the people, and the facts, as to make such reminiscences possible as those which I should attempt to evoke by an appeal to perfect fellowship. But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavements of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset.’

Anthony Trollope

Week 386: They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek, by Sir Thomas Wyatt

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t featured this week’s poem before: I must have thought it was too well known, but really it’s one of those poems that can’t be too well known, so it’s time to make amends. When so much of what passes for poetry is merely an exercise in the conventions of the age, to come across the true living voice is always startling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1593-1542) figures as a character in Hilary Mantel’s excellent ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy.

They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this’.

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Week 385: Rondeau de Printemps, by René Charles d’Orléans

A slight improvement this week in the miserable weather we have been having here of late, so I thought I would celebrate with this charming rondeau by the French duke-cum-poet René Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465). It captures some of the joy that people in the Middle Ages must have felt at the return of spring. And of course, for those of us who grew up in homes without central heating, the Middle Ages lasted well into the nineteen-fifties.

The translation that follows is my own.

Rondeau de printemps

Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie,
Et s’est vêtu de broderie,
De soleil luisant, clair et beau.

Il n’y a bête ni oiseau
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie.

Rivière, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent en livrée jolie
Gouttes d’argent, d’orfèvrerie;
Chacun s’habille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissé son manteau.

René Charles d’Orléans

Spring Rondeau

The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain
And robed itself in sunlight now,
All’s radiance again.

There’s not a bird and not a beast
But echoes the refrain:
The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain

While river, brook and fountain bear
A liquid livery
Of silver and gold filigree;
So one and all, new clad, declare
The season has put off its wear.

Week 384: Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, by Louis Simpson

This poem by the American poet Louis Simpson (1923-2012) seems to be primarily about disillusionment with the American way of life, though it ends on a note of apparent hope. I really like it for its lyricism, but am aware that as an English reader I am almost certainly missing some of its cultural nuances. For one thing, I am not even sure exactly what the ‘American dream’ is. Opening your own fast-food joint? Getting a cameo role in The Simpsons? Coming over here, marrying one of our princes and carting him off to Canada? Whatever it is, the poet clearly feels that it has led his people down the wrong road, and that the nation they were promised has become lost in a rising tide of uncaring consumerism: ‘The Open Road goes to the used-car lot’, and only poets stop to read inscriptions. But then there is a change of mood that seems to stem from a feeling of being released from the burden of expectation: ‘All that grave weight of America/Cancelled’. The last line, ‘Dances like Italy, imagining red’, is a resounding one but I have to confess I don’t understand it. Why Italy? Why red? Sorry, Louis Simpson, but I need a bit of help with this one. Still think it’s a fine poem though.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.

‘Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

‘Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
Colossal snows,
And the light above the street is sick to death.

‘As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.’

‘I am here’, he answered.
‘It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?

I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.’
Then, vastly amused – ‘Why do you reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.’
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing …

Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Official scenarios,
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
American dreams.

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.

All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and the roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there…

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Louis Simpson

Week 383: On Teaching The Young, by Yvor Winters

I think it is possible to admire a poem for its clarity and eloquence while remaining sceptical of its assertions. This is certainly the case for me with this week’s offering by the American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968). ‘The poet’s only bliss/Is in cold certitude’ – now I would have thought that may be true of mathematicians, but that poets, like physicists and historians, have to rub along taking what satisfaction they can from the partial view and the provisional truth. And the tone jars a bit… Winters taught English at American universities and there is always the danger in that profession that a laudable desire to maintain standards will edge over into a joyless puritanical exclusiveness. At Cambridge I chose not to read English as a formal subject; if I had done so it would have been under the tutelage of the critic F.R.Leavis, then holding court at Downing College. Leavis was a man of considerable critical gifts, and his pronouncements were certainly worth attention as far as they went, but I don’t know, somehow he didn’t seem to have much fun. I have never felt qualified to teach anyone anything, but if I did I would say ‘There it is before you, the great ocean of world literature, just plunge in like a dolphin and follow your delight…’

On Teaching The Young

The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude –
Laurel, archaic, rude.

Yvor Winters

Week 382: Mill O’Tifty’s Annie, by Anon

This week a Scots ballad, Child 233, that takes us back into a dark mediaeval time, scarcely imaginable now, when a woman was the chattel of her family, to be disposed of in marriage for their profit and convenience, and if she stepped out of line could be brutalised and even subject to a so-called ‘honour killing’. This girl’s crime was to love one below her station; in the similarly themed ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ (Child 65) the crime is even worse: Susie falls in love with an Englishman. Along with the tragedy here there is a bit of perhaps unintentional Jane-Austenish social comedy: Lord Fyvie is struck by Annie’s beauty, and rather regrets that of course there could no question of a mere miller’s daughter becoming Lady Fyvie, while at the same time Annie’s father is equally dismissive of the idea of Annie marrying a mere trumpeter, even one in Lord Fyvie’s retinue. Doesn’t say much for the social standing of musicians…

The ballad has been covered by, among others, Jean Redpath on ‘Song of the Seals’ and Martin Simpson.

Mill O’Tifty’s Annie

At Mill O’ Tifty there lived a man
In the neighbourhood of Fyvie
He had a bonnie dochter dear
Whose name was Bonnie Annie.

Her bloom was like the springing flower
That hails the rosy morning,
With innocence and graceful mien
Her beauteous form adorning.

Lord Fyvie had a trumpeter
By the name o’ Andrew Lammie
He had the art tae win the heart
O’ Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie.

Proper he was, both young and gay,
His like was not in Fyvie,
Nor was ane there that could compare
With this same Andrew Lammie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
Whaur lived Tifty’s Annie
And his trumpeter rade him before
Even this same Andrew Lammie

Her mother cried her tae the door
Saying, ‘Come here tae me, my Annie
Did e’er ye see a bonnier man
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie?’

Nae thing she said, but sighing sore
‘Alas for Bonnie Annie’.
Love so oppressed her tender breast
Thinking on Andrew Lammie

‘Love comes in at my bedside
And love lies doon aside me
Love has possessed my tender breast
And love will waste my body

‘The first time me and my love met
‘Twas in the woods o’ Fyvie
His lovely form and speech so soft
Soon gained the heart of Annie.

He ca’d me ‘Mistress’, I said ‘No
I was Tifty’s Bonnie Annie’
With apples sweet he did me treat
And kisses soft and mony.

‘It’s up and doon in Tifty’s den
Where the burn runs clear and bonnie
I’ve often gane tae meet my love
My bonnie Andrew Lammie’

Her faither cam’ tae hear o’ this
And a letter wrote tae Fyvie
Tae say his dochter was bewitched
By his servant Andrew Lammie.

Then up the stair his trumpeter
He called soon and shortly:
‘Pray tell me soon what’s this you’ve done
To Tifty’s bonny Annie.’

‘Woe be to Mill of Tifty’s pride,
For it has ruined many;
They’ll not have ’t said that she should wed
The trumpeter of Fyvie.

‘In wicked art I had no part,
Nor therein am I canny;
True love alone the heart has won
Of Tifty’s bonnie Annie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
‘What ails ye, Bonnie Annie?’
‘It’s a’ for love that I maun die
For bonnie Andrew Lammie’

‘Oh Tifty, Tifty gie consent                     [Lord Fyvie speaks]
And let your dochter marry.’
’It’ll be tae ane o’ higher degree            [Annie’s father speaks]
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie.’

‘Had she been born o’ richer kin           [Lord Fyvie speaks]
As she is rich in beauty
I was hae ta’en the lass mysel’
And made her my ain lady’

‘Oh, Fyvie’s lands are far and wide       [Annie speaks]
An’ they are wondrous bonnie
But I wadnae gie my ain true love
No’ for a’ your lands o’ Fyvie’

At this her faither struck her sore
And likewise did her mother
Her sisters a’ they did her scorn
But wae’s me for her brother

Her brother struck her wondrous sore
Wi’ cruel strokes and many
He broke her back on the high hall-door
A’ for likin’ Andrew Lammie

‘Oh faither, mother, sisters a’
Why sae cruel tae your Annie?
My heart was broken first by love
Noo my brother’s broke my body

‘Oh mother, mother mak’ my bed
An’ lay my face tae Fyvie
Thus will I lie and will I die
For my ain dear Andrew Lammie’