Week 429: Merlin, by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) enjoys a high reputation in academic circles and as a ‘poets’ poet’, an accolade which has always seemed to me a bit suspect: certainly it is good to have the approval of one’s fellow poets, but a better trick, it seems to me, is to combine that with an equal gift for giving satisfaction to the general intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind, and Geoffrey Hill does not appear to have achieved that in the same way as such contemporaries as Heaney, Larkin, Hughes and R.S.Thomas. It is not hard to see why: his poems are uncompromisingly difficult, and concessions to the reader who may be less informed or have less arcane preoccupations are few or non-existent, meaning that he seems to me likely to remain popular mainly among those who have most reason to be grateful for the exegetic possibilities that he offers them.

For example, in his well-known sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, I find the language intriguing, but the meaning a little elusive (oh, come on, let’s be honest here: I haven’t the faintest idea what the guy is on about). So it is that in the end I have filed this poet under ‘Come back to when I’m a bit cleverer’. Sadly time is running out for any sudden access of increased mental powers on my part. It’s a pity, because now and then, as in this short piece, I get a glimmer of what I might be missing.

Merlin

“I will consider the outnumbering dead,
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locust’s covering tide.

“Arthur, Elaine, Mordred – they are all gone
Beneath the raftered galleries of bone.
Under the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.”

Geoffrey Hill

Week 428: The Ballet of the Fifth Year, by Delmore Schwartz

I was reminded of this poem when I caught the end of a TV documentary last week about the ice-dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, that showed the pair skating on a frozen lake in Alaska. ‘Such grace, so self-contained’ indeed. The poem is by the American poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). I think that unlike our ice-skating pair it stumbles a bit early on but does weave its way towards a beautiful conclusion. The meaning of the poem is a little hard to unravel, but I think it turns on the contrast between the angst-ridden intensity of the metropolitan intellectual, whose life is full of problems that must be solved by an effort of thought and will, and the effortless unthinking grace of the gulls, who inhabit ‘a place of different traffic’, a place that was known to the child the poet once was, but is now lost to him.

The Ballet of the Fifth Year

Where the sea gulls sleep or indeed where they fly
Is a place of different traffic. Although I
Consider the fishing bay (where I see them dip and curve
And purely glide) a place that weakens the nerve
Of will, and closes my eyes, as they should not be
(They should burn like the street-light all night quietly,
So that whatever is present will be known to me),
Nevertheless the gulls and the imagination
Of where they sleep, which comes to creation
In strict shape and color, from their dallying
Their wings slowly, and suddenly rallying
Over, up, down the arabesque of descent,
Is an old act enacted, my fabulous intent
When I skated, afraid of policemen, five years old,
In the winter sunset, sorrowful and cold,
Hardly attained to thought, but old enough to know
Such grace, so self-contained, was the best escape to know.

Delmore Schwartz

Week 427: From ‘Reynard The Fox’, by John Masefield

Another piece that my primary school headmistress, God rest her formidable but caring soul, read to us in those far off Literature lessons (see week 419) was extracts from John Masefield’s long narrative poem ‘Reynard The Fox’, in which she, or someone of her acquaintance, had cleverly substituted names from our local Hertfordshire countryside for many of place-names in the poem, such that we small children could follow the great hunt in our minds by woods and fields that we ourelves roamed over. I have had an affection for the poem ever since, and while the more cerebral fashions that followed may have seemed to sweep Masefield’s verse away, I think that at its best it had a vigour and clarity that was and remains admirable. And whatever one thinks of fox-hunting, the poem is very even-handed in its treatment: those who feel that there is something not quite right about taking pleasure in pursuing a small animal to exhaustion then watching it being torn to pieces by dogs can find some consolation in the fact that the actual hunt is written very much from the point of view of the fox, while those who see hunting as a fine old tradition inextricably woven into the fabric of British country life can enjoy the long Chaucerian prologue with its basically sympathetic description of the various human characters involved, and the loving celebration of the English countryside that forms its backdrop.

So here are three extracts from the poem: the first from the prologue, a portrayal of Tom Dansey, the hunt whip; the second from mid-hunt when the fox is still fresh and has hopes of going to earth; the third from towards the end.

….His chief delight
Was hunting fox from noon to night.
His pleasure lay in hounds and horses;
He loved the Seven Springs water-courses,
Those flashing brooks (in good sound grass,
Where scent would hang like breath on glass).
He loved the English countryside:
The wine-leaved bramble in the ride,
The lichen on the apple-trees,
The poultry ranging on the lees,
The farms, the moist earth-smelling cover,
His wife’s green grave at Mitcheldover,
Where snowdrops pushed at the first thaw.
Under his hide his heart was raw
With joy and pity of these things.

… the hunt gets underway….

The pure clean air came sweet to his lungs,
Till he thought foul scorn of those crying tongues,
In a three mile more he would reach the haven
In the Wan Dyke croaked on by the raven,
In a three mile more he would make his berth
On the hard cool floor of a Wan Dyke earth,
Too deep for spade, too curved for terrier,
With the pride of the race to make rest the merrier.
In a three mile more he would reach his dream,
So his game heart gulped and he put on steam.
Like a rocket shot to a ship ashore,
The lean red bolt of his body tore,
Like a ripple of wind running swift on grass,
Like a shadow on wheat when a cloud blows past,
Like a turn at the buoy in a cutter sailing,
When the bright green gleam lips white at the railing,
Like the April snake whipping back to sheath,
Like the gannet’s hurtle on fish beneath,
Like a kestrel chasing, like a sickle reaping,
Like all things swooping, like all things sweeping,
Like a hound for stay, like a stag for swift,
With his shadow beside like spinning drift.
Past the gibbet-stock all stuck with nails,
Where they hanged in chains what had hung at jails,
Past Ashmundshowe where Ashmund sleeps,
And none but the tumbling peewit weeps,
Past Curlew Calling, the gaunt grey corner
Where the curlew comes as a summer mourner,
Past Blowbury Beacon shaking his fleece,
Where all winds hurry and none brings peace,
Then down, on the mile-long green decline
Where the turf’s like spring and the air’s like wine,
Where the sweeping spurs of the downland spill
Into Wan Brook Valley and Wan Dyke Hill.

… alas for the tox, he finds the entrance to his earth has been barred. I still remember vividly the gasps of shock and howls of outrage from the class of rapt ten year olds when the headmistress delivered the line ‘The earth was stopped. It was barred with stakes’. But the fox runs on and if you don’t know or have forgotten what happens in the end, I won’t spoil it for you….

He thought as he ran of his old delight
In the wood in the moon in an April night,
His happy hunting, his winter loving,
The smells of things in the midnight roving;
The look of his dainty-nosing, red
Clean-felled dam with her footpad’s tread,
Of his sire, so swift, so game, so cunning
With craft in his brain and power of running,
Their fights of old when his teeth drew blood.
Now he was sick, with his coat all mud.

John Masefield


Week 426: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

I’m posting a day early this week, and if it’s Christmas Eve it has to be that perennial Hardy favourite, ‘The Oxen’, and even though I imagine few of my readers will need reminding of it, for me its wistful poignancy still works every time. I do wonder, though, about the line ‘So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!’. I would have thought that in Hardy’s day the weaving of fair fancies was still going strong. True, it was already some years since Darwin had presented his challenge to religious orthodoxy, and since Matthew Arnold had stood on Dover beach and heard the sea of faith receding, but had these intellectual currents really impinged that much as yet on popular belief?

Not that fair fancy is entirely dead even now. A year or two back, one frosty Christmas Eve with a moon rising, I met a neighbour’s small child who informed very earnestly that if I waited and watched the sky with her I might see Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the face of the moon on their way to making their deliveries. What could I do but stand with her and look up, hoping it might be so…

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Week 425: From ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy

This is the last section of a longer poem, ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014). The poem deals with the birth of a child who turns out to have Down Syndrome. Its inclusion here is a little problematic because, although it appears in the poem as first published, the poet then removed it on the grounds that he no longer felt comfortable with it, seeing it as ‘making explicit things that should have remained implicit’. I think that this is a pity – I feel that this section makes a touching coda to a poem that is diminished without it. A proper reticence is admirable, in poetry as in life, and yet it can be very moving when a poet steps out from behind a screen of symbol and metaphor and simply tells it straight. And if we are to concede a poet’s right to amend a poem after publication, then maybe we should also concede a reader’s right to prefer the original.

Note that the poet’s use of the now jarring term ‘mongol’ in the last stanza merely reflects standard nomenclature at the time the poem was written.

From ‘The Almond Tree’

You turn to the window for the first time.
I am called to the cot
To see your focus shift,
Take tendril-hold on a shaft
Of sun, explore its dusty surface. Climb
To an eye you cannot

meet. You have a sickness they cannot heal,
the doctors say: locked in
your body you will remain.
Well, I have been locked in mine.
We will tunnel each other out. You seal
the covenant with a grin.

In the days we have known one another,
my little mongol love,
I have learnt more from your lips
than you will from mine, perhaps.
I have learnt that to live is to suffer,
to suffer is to live.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 424: Years Ago, by Elizabeth Jennings

One more on the theme of lost love, this time from the quietly effective Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who favoured a poetry of plain statement charged with deep emotion that, when it works, I often find more appealing than much showier stuff.

Years Ago

It was what we did not do that I remember,
Places with no markers left by us,
All of a summer, meeting every day,
A memorable summer of hot days,
Day after day of them, evening after evening.
Sometimes we would laze

Upon the river-bank, just touching hands
Or stroking one another’s hands with grasses.
Swans floated by seeming to assert
Their dignity. But we too had our own
Decorum in the small-change of first love.

Nothing was elegiac or nostalgic,
We threw time in the river as we threw
Breadcrumbs to an inquisitive duck, and so
Day entered evening with a sweeping gesture,
Idly we talked of food and where to go.

This is the love that I knew long ago.
Before possession, passion and betrayal.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 423: Summer Sun, by George Barker

Continuing last week’s theme of lost love, this week something in a very different style by George Barker (1913-1991), a colourful character who was associated with a neo-romantic 1940s movement known as the New Apocalyptics. It’s not a group whose poetry I feel much affinity for, its diction too strained and artificial for my taste, and even this poem seems to me very uneven: I can’t be doing with fishlipped lovers kissing catastrophes, but I feel the fourth stanza in particular does achieve a memorable lyric quality. An influence on the group was Dylan Thomas, and one Dylan Thomas is, well, I won’t say more than enough, but I will say enough. And yet, despite the fact that the movement was supposedly in reaction against the poetry of the thirties, it seems to me that the echoes I detect here are much more those of Auden than of Dylan Thomas.

Summer Sun

I looked into my heart to write
And found a desert there.
But when I looked again I heard
Howling and proud in every word
The hyena despair.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
All loss burns in trophies;
And in the cold sheet of the sky
Lifelong the fishlipped lovers lie
Kissing catastrophes.

O loving garden where I lay
When under the breasted tree
My son stood up behind my eyes
And groaned: Remember that the price
Is vinegar for me.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the designer:
I would not be the one to start
The breaking day and the breaking heart
For all the grief in China.

My one, my one, my only love,
Hide, hide your face in a leaf,
And let the hot tear falling burn
The stupid heart that will not learn
The everywhere of grief.

Great summer sun, great summer sun,
Turn back to the never-never
Cloud-cuckoo, happy, far-off land
Where all the love is true love, and
True love goes on for ever.

George Barker

Week 422: Ae Fond Kiss, by Robert Burns

I imagine that this is one of the best-known and best-loved of all Burns’s poems, and certainly one of my own favourites, combining as it does the anonymous purity of folksong with a deeply personal note. True, one may feel that it rather transcends the circumstances of its composition, but it wouldn’t be the first poem to do that. I had always assumed, as I think many readers must, that the ‘first’ of ‘first and fairest’ meant that this was Burns’s first love affair, and that the poem was a paean to a youthful ardour never quite recaptured, but actually it seems that ‘first’ here merely signified pre-eminence in his affections, and Burns had already had a good number of amorous liaisons before meeting this particular lady, one Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose, in Edinburgh in 1787. Also, Agnes, a married woman though at the time separated from her lawyer husband, seems to have been anxious to observe the proprieties and it appears that the passion in their relationship remained confined to their letters. Given Burns’s ardent temperament, he must have found this rather trying, but the resourceful bard did at least manage to get her domestic servant pregnant. After which Agnes went off to join her estranged husband in the West Indies and Burns went back to his old love Jean Armour. Still, none of this circumstantial detail gets in the way of this being one of the great poems of loss and heartbreak.

Ae Fond Kiss

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee. 

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me. 

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy:
Naething could resist my Nancy!
But to see her was to love her
Love but her, and love for ever. 

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met — or never parted —
We had ne’er been broken-hearted. 

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure! 

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

Robert Burns

Week 421: The Queen’s Marie, by Anon

This ballad, also entitled ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’, is Child 173 and is thought to date from the sixteenth century. If it has a historical basis, this has proved difficult to pin down: various Stuart kings have been proposed as the guilty parties, and a Russian connection has also been suggested. Needless to say it exists in many versions: this one, as part recited and part sung by the great Scots ballad-singer Jean Redpath, is my favourite, and the only regret I have is that in some other versions Mary knows quite well that she is going not to a wedding but to her execution, but nonetheless puts on her best clothes, her gown of white, as an act of defiance to the queen. In this version, she is apparently oblivious of her journey’s end. Or is she, given her weariness and reluctance? It is a little unclear, which could be a device to add to the pathos, or it could just be a result of the patchwork way ballad-singers tended to operate, stitching together favourite stanzas from here and there in a way that resulted in the occasional inconsistency.

In any event, one of the things I admire most about the old ballads is their sheer narrative drive, how nothing is wasted as they plunge you straight into the action and then never let up on it. You see it in the border ballads: ‘Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid/And I wot they had better stayed at hame/For Michael o’Winfield he is dead/And Jock o’ the Side is a prisoner taen’. And you see the same drive here: the King’s head turned by the pretty young serving-maid, pregnancy, a failed attempt at abortion, infanticide, gossip making its way to the queen, all in a handful of stanzas.

A note on the Abbey tree: I don’t know what kind of tree this was, but it was traditionally believed that certain abortifacient plants, notably birthwort (Aristolochia) were planted close to religious buildings for the convenience of nuns who had inadvertently become pregnant. See Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’. But birthwort of course is a flower; my guess for the tree would be juniper.

The Queen’s Marie

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ ribbons in her hair;
The king thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than ony that were there.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane
   Wi’ ribbons on her breast;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than he listen’d to the priest.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ gloves upon her hands;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than the Queen and a’ her lands.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely one,
Till she was beloved by a’ the King’s court
   And the King the only man.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely three,
Till frae the King’s court Marie Hamilton,
   Marie Hamilton durstna be.

The King is to the Abbey gane,
   To pu’ the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie’s heart;
   But the thing it wadna be.

O she has row’d it in her apron,
   And set it on the sea—
‘Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
   Ye’se get nae mair o’ me.’

Word is to the kitchen gane,
   And word is to the ha’,
And word is to the noble room
   Amang the ladies a’,
That Marie Hamilton’s brought to bed,
   And the bonny babe’s miss’d and awa’.

Scarcely had she lain down again,
   And scarcely fa’en asleep,
When up and started our gude Queen
   Just at her bed-feet;
Saying—‘Marie Hamilton, where’s your babe?
   For I am sure I heard it greet.’

‘O no, O no, my noble Queen!
   Think no sic thing to be;
’Twas but a stitch into my side,
   And sair it troubles me!’

‘Get up, get up, Marie Hamilton:
   Get up and follow me;
For I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding for to see.’

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
   And slowly put she on;
And slowly rade she out the way
   Wi’ mony a weary groan.

The Queen was clad in scarlet,
   Her merry maids all in green;
And every town that they cam to,
   They took Marie for the Queen.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, gentlemen,
   Ride hooly now wi’ me!
For never, I am sure, a wearier burd
   Rade in your companie.’—

But little wist Marie Hamilton,
   When she rade on the brown,
That she was gaen to Edinburgh,
   And a’ to be put down.

‘Why weep ye so, ye burgess wives,
   Why look ye so on me?
O I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding to see.’

When she gaed up the Tolbooth stairs,
   The corks frae her heels did flee;
And lang or e’er she cam down again,
   She was condemn’d to die.

When she cam to the Netherbow port,
   She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But when she cam to the gallows foot
   The tears blinded her e’e.

‘Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
   The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
   And Marie Carmichael, and me.

‘O often have I dress’d my Queen
   And put gowd upon her hair;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows to be my share.

‘Often have I dress’d my Queen
   And often made her bed;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows tree to tread.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   When ye sail owre the faem,
Let neither my father nor mother get wit
   But that I’m coming hame.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   That sail upon the sea,
That neither my father nor mother get wit
   But I this death did dee.

Anon

Week 420: Photograph of Haymaker, 1890, by Molly Holden

I realise that I have already featured several poems by the excellent Molly Holden over the years, but as Auden says, when poets die they become their admirers, and it is then up to those admirers to do what they can to keep the memory alive of those they have shaken hands with in their hearts. This, then, was the opening poem of Molly’s fine first collection, ‘To Make Me Grieve’, published in 1968, characteristically combining her elegiac feeling for the passage of time with an acutely sensuous perception of the natural world.

Photograph of Haymaker, 1890

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.

Molly Holden