Week 450: The Collier, by Vernon Watkins

This ballad by Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) interweaves memories of an idyllic childhood with the grim reckoning demanded by adulthood in the form of a life down the coal-pit, culminating in a mine disaster, while at the same time working in allusions to the biblical story of Joseph. I think it is one of his best pieces, a poem in which he seems to find his own voice, more so than in much of his work, which is a little too heavily influencd by his lifelong devotion to W.B.Yeats. If I have reservations it’s about a certain detachment from reality in the poem’s ending. In ‘Station Island’ Seamus Heaney has the ghost of his cousin, victim of a sectarian killing during the Troubles, reproach the poet for romanticising his death in his earlier poem ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’: ‘for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/and saccharined my death with morning dew’. By the same token Watkins could be accused of saccharining the choking claustrophobic death of miners in a pit disaster. All the same, one has to admire the skill with which he handles the ballad form, in a way somewhat reminiscent of that other modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley.

The Collier

When I was born on Amman hill
A dark bird crossed the sun.
Sharp on the floor the shadow fell;
I was the youngest son.

And when I went to the County School
I worked in a shaft of light.
In the wood of the desk I cut my name:
Dai for Dynamite.

The tall black hills my brothers stood;
Their lessons all were done.
From the door of the school when I ran out
They frowned to watch me run.

The slow grey bells they rang a chime
Surly with grief or age.
Clever or clumsy, lad or lout,
All would look for a wage.

I learnt the valley flowers’ names
And the rough bark knew my knees.
I brought home trout from the river
And spotted eggs from the trees.

A coloured coat I was given to wear
Where the lights of the rough land shone.
Still jealous of my favour
The tall black hills looked on.

They dipped my coat in the blood of a kid
And they cast me down a pit,
And although I crossed with strangers,
There was no way up from it.

Soon as I went from the County School
I worked in a shaft. Said Jim,
‘You will get your chain of gold, my lad,
But not for a likely time.’

And one said, ‘Jack was not raised up
When the wind blew out the light
Though he interpreted their dreams
And guessed their fears by night.’

And Tom, he shivered his leper’s lamp
For the stain that round him grew;
And I heard mouths pray in the after-damp
When the picks would not break through.

They changed words there in the darkness
And still through my head they run,
And white on my limbs is the linen sheet
And gold on my neck the sun.

Vernon Watkins

Week 449: Cilmeri, by Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri is a small village in mid-Wales, not far from the town of Llanfair ym Muallt (Builth Wells), and it was here on December 11th, 1282 that the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, popularly known as Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn our Last Lord) was killed in a minor skirmish with King Edward I of England’s soldiers. After that Wales was never again a fully sovereign state. For many Welsh people, especially those who would like to see the country become an independent nation once more, this is still a matter of raw grief and the name of the place a rallying cry, as evidenced in these sparse englynion by one of the leading modern Welsh-language poets, Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1944-2014). I think that most English people have by now more or less come to terms with the rather unfortunate result of the Battle of Hastings (spoiler alert: we lost). The Welsh are made of sterner stuff and do not roll over so easily!

The fairly literal translation that follows is my own. The formal sound-patterns (cynghanedd) of the Welsh are lacking, of course.

Cilmeri

Fin nos fan hyn
Lladdwyd Llywelyn.
Fyth nid anghofiwn hyn.

Y nant a welaf fan hyn
A welodd Llywelyn,
Camodd ar y cerrig hyn.

Fin nos, fan hyn
O’r golwg nesâi’r gelyn.
Fe wnaed y cyfan fan hyn.

Rwyf fi’n awr fan hyn
Lle bu’i wallt ar welltyn,
A dafnau o’i waed fan hyn.

Fan hyn yw ein cof ni,
Fan hyn sy’n anadl inni,
Fan hyn gynnau fu’n geni.

Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri

Here at the edge of night
They slew Llywelyn.
Never shall we forget.

The stream that I see here
Llywelyn saw.
He stepped upon this stone.

Here at the edge of night
The enemy drew near
Unseen. All happened here.

Here where I am now
Blood-bespattered grass
Cradled his head once.

Here is our memory.
Here, the air we breathe.
Here, just now, our birth.

And no mention of Llywelyn would be complete without a reference to the very fine elegy for him written at the time by Gruffudd ab Yr Ynad Coch, a poet who saw well what a disaster this was for Wales. A full translation by Anthony Conran can be found in the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. Just as a taster, here are some famous lines from it, in my own translation:

Oni welwch chi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?
Oni welwch goed derw’n ymdaro?
Oni welwch chi’r môr yn parlysu’r tir?
Oni welwch chi’r gwir yn ymgreinio?
Oni welwch chi’r haul yn yr awyr yn hwylio?
Oni welwch chi’r sêr wedi syrthio?
Oni chredwch chi yn Nuw, ddynion gwirion?
Oni welwch chi’r byd wedi darfod?

Do you not see the way of the wind and rain?
Do you not see oak trees clashing together?
Do you not see the sea assaulting the land?
Do you not see truth laid low?
Do you not see the sun forsaking the sky?
Do you not see that the stars have fallen?
Do you not believe in God, o foolish men?
Do you not see that the world has ended?


Week 448: From ‘The White Devil’ by John Webster

‘The White Devil’ is a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster (1584-1634). Featuring a convoluted plot and a cast of murderous Italians, it might seem unlikely to have much appeal for a modern audience, and yet, come to think of it, those same ingredients didn’t stop the TV drama ‘The Sopranos’ from being a runaway success, and certainly the twentieth century saw a renewed appreciation of Webster’s dark poetry. One thing’s for sure: he had that Elizabethan knack of handling a strong, flexible blank verse line in a way that has never been surpassed or indeed equalled since. Here is the Italian nobleman Giovanni in conversation with his uncle Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, lamenting the death of Giovanni’s murdered mother Isabella.

Giov.   What do the dead do, uncle? do they eat,
  Hear music, go a-hunting, and be merry,
  As we that live?

Fran.   No, coz; they sleep.

Giov.   Lord, Lord, that I were dead!
  I have not slept these six nights.  When do they wake?

Fran.   When God shall please.

Giov.   Good God, let her sleep ever!
  For I have known her wake an hundred nights,
  When all the pillow where she laid her head
  Was brine-wet with her tears.  I am to complain to you, sir;
  I’ll tell you how they have us’d her now she ‘s dead:
  They wrapp’d her in a cruel fold of lead,
  And would not let me kiss her.

John Webster

Week 447: Scents, by David Sutton

Some time ago my wife lost her sense of smell. Nothing to do with Covid: it seems the condition, known as anosmia, can strike without apparent cause: sometimes the sense spontaneously comes back after a while, but in this case it hasn’t. But at least, unlike many Covid victims who have suffered the same fate, she can still taste things as normal.

Naturally I provide such husbandly comfort as I can, pointing out, for example, how much worse it would be for her if she were a dog. And I suspect most would agree that if you are going to lose one of your senses, smell is the one you are going to miss least. Even so, I find it a bit sad, when I think of all the odours that have given me pleasure in life, and continue to do so. And it has moved me to reflect that the sense of smell is really very little celebrated in poetry; in fact I have failed to think offhand of any poem in which it can be said to take centre stage, which has reduced me to presenting one of my own as this week’s offering…

Scents

Tonight the rain in summer dark
Releases scents of leaf and bark:
The fumy reek of resined trees
And currant’s sweet acridities.

Those aromatic compounds fit
Some membranous receptive pit
And trigger in my waiting brain
The memory of other rain.

I learnt my seasons from no class:
My summers were wild rose and grass,
A velveted and honeyed air.
Tonight I know: the past is there

And lies, so little does it need
To live again, in bush and weed
A yard or two beyond my door.
I am the child I was before.

Odours of earth, like love they came
Before the word, before the name.
The gates of time swing wide for these
Primaeval analeptic keys.

Then let me keep, though all depart,
These strange familiars from my start:
As in my first, in my last air,
Most potent molecules, be there.

David Sutton

Week 445: Bluebells, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Just for a week or two each year, at the end of April into early May, my Chiltern countryside is at its spring perfection, and once again I have been walking in Rushmore Wood, along the broad track speckled with the first fall of cherry petals, the wooded slope dropping away to my left, thick with bluebells: pools, lakes, rivers, waterfalls of blue cascading down the slope, and the misty Oxfordshire plain below, glimpsed through a light screen of young beech leaves. Housman, of course, was good on bluebells: ‘And like a skylit water stood/The bluebells in the azured wood’, but when it comes to the detail it is hard to beat Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear, but you have to admire his sincerity and passion. Here he is in his journal engaging all his senses in an attempt to define the flower’s peculiar lovely ‘inscape’.

‘In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transoms. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them’.

There is also this quatrain in his poem ‘May Magnificat’:

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
 ……And magic cuckoocall
 ……Caps, clears, and clinches all—‘

Sadly it is many years since I heard a cuckoo in these parts.

Week 442: Melin Trefin, by William Williams (‘Crwys’)

A couple of weeks back I promised my correspondent Albert that I’d have a go at translating one of his favourite Welsh poems, so here’s the result; hope it passes muster.

The poem in question is by William Williams (1875-1968), who took the bardic name ‘Crwys’. I guess bardic names are quite useful in a country like Wales that seems rather short on variety when it comes to personal nomenclature; actually given the number of David Suttons around I rather wish I’d thought of one for myself.

The Welsh text is slightly different from that found elsewhere online, but I’ve taken mine from ‘Blodeugerdd o Farddoniaeth Gymraeg Yr Ugeinfed Ganrif’, so I’m assuming that’s right.

Crwys was a preacher and archdruid as well as a poet. I came across this account of how he to came to write the poem; such accounts seem to be rare among poets but I always find them interesting where they do exist.

‘”I had been invited to preach at Trefin,” he said, “and, as was the custom of the time, I was put up by a member of the congregation, a Mrs Owen whose husband had come from North Wales to manage a quarry nearby. After supper, I walked down to the little cove nearby and saw the ruin of this old mill. I then went back to the house and I removed the cup and saucer that were still on the supper table and pushed back the tablecloth and began to write. It all came to me quite easy, except for the last four lines – they came from above!”’

Melin Trefin

Nid yw’r felin heno’n malu
Yn Nhrefin ym min y môr,
Trodd y merlyn olaf adre’
Dan ei bwn o drothwy’r ddôr,
Ac mae’r rhod fu gynt yn rhygnu
Ac yn chwyrnu drwy y fro,
Er pan farw’r hen felinydd
Wedi rhoi ei holaf dro.

Rhed y ffrwd garedig eto
Gyda thalcen noeth y tŷ,
Ond ddaw ned i’r fal ai farlys,
A’r hen olwyn fawr ni thry;
Lle dôi gwenith gwyn Llanrhiain
Derfyn haf yn llwythi cras,
Ni cheir mwy ond tres o wymon
Gydag ambell frwynen las.

Segur faen sy’n gwylio’r fangre
Yn y curlaw mawr a’r gwynt,
Dilythyren garreg goffa
O’r amseroedd difyr gynt,
Ond ’does yma neb yn malu,
Namyn amser swrth a’r hin
Wrthi’n chwalu ac yn malu,
Malu’r felin yn Nhrefin.

William Williams (‘Crwys’)

The Mill at Trefin

Tonight the mill at Trefin,
That stands beside the foam,
Grinds nothing: the last pony
Has borne its last load home.
The grating wheel whose grumbles
Once filled the country round
Stopped when the old miller died.
Tonight it makes no sound.

The kindly stream still running
Beside the mill’s bare brow
Turns the big old wheel no more.
None bring their barley now.
Where white wheat from Llanrhiain
Lay heaped at summer’s close
Now seaweed trails, and only
The scattered green rush grows.

The idle stone keeps vigil
In wind and driving rain,
Unlettered monument to days
That will not come again.
For nothing now is ground here,
Yet time and weather still
Graft on at their grim labour
And grind down Trefin mill.

Week 441: “What lips my lips have kissed” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I mostly find the sonnets of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950; see also week 96) rather too posed and literary for my taste, being on the whole one of that school who think that poetic diction should be ‘sort of like what you talk, only better’. But I’m not dogmatic about it, and I do think this one has an appealing plangency. Yes, it’s outrageously romantic, but if you happen to be in the mood for a bit of romantic melancholy, then this may be the poem for you.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St Vincent Millay

Week 440: I Look into my Glass, by Thomas Hardy

This week one of the great poems of old age. It makes an interesting comparison with a quatrain of W.B.Yeats on the same theme: ‘You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attention upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?’

Hardy’s poem is altogether gentler and more wistful. Yes, anger and lust may indeed be an element in those ‘throbbings of noontide’ but the predominant emotion is one of sadness and regret, coupled with a characteristic awareness of ‘life’s little ironies’ – in this case, that the frailty and general decline in vitality that comes with age should have not yet brought him any diminution of memory and desire.

Yeats’s lines achieve, as so often with Yeats, a powerful personal rhetoric, but Hardy’s come much closer to a universal human poetry.

I Look into my Glass

I look into my glass,
  And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
  My heart had shrunk as thin!’

For then, I, undistrest
  By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
  With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
  Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
  With throbbings of noontide.

Thomas Hardy

Week 437: From ‘Waterlog’, by Roger Deakin

Looking back over the years I seem to have been very diffident about expressing my enthusiasm for other writers’ work by actually writing to tell them of it, having sent a mere five such missives in sixty years. I don’t know why this should be – I imagine most authors quite like getting fan letters. I know I do, though admittedly at the rate of about one per year the volume in my case has not been such as to prove unduly burdensome. And on the occasions I have nerved myself, I have always received a perfectly courteous response – back in the early sixties J.R.R.Tolkien, for example, sent his young fan a charming handwritten reply which a few years ago raised £400 for a children’s charity. The last such letter I sent was to the nature-writer Roger Deakin (1943-2006), having fallen in love with his delightful book ‘Waterlog’, which is quite unlike anything else I have ever read: basically an account of his wild swimming adventures in rivers, lakes, seas and waterholes the length and breadth of the British Isles, yet also much more than that: a kind of sensual paean to nature studded with fascinating facts, anecdotes and literary asides. I’ve never been much inclined to follow Roger’s more extreme natatory feats – certainly I remember with great pleasure a swim in a Norwegian fjord after a long hot day’s walk, and a dip in an alder-fringed pool coming back down from a summer scramble up Cader Idris, but the idea of an early season plunge like Roger’s into some freezing wind-whipped mountain tarn is less appealing. But here is Roger in the hills above Porthmadog in Wales.

‘Water was gushing and surging up through a moraine of massive boulders, then sliding down a forty-five degree slab of rock, black where it was wet and purple where it was dry. Lying back against the sloping rock I let the water flood over me, then swam against the current in a substantial pool lower down. Water rushed about everywhere, and amongst the remains of a settlement I found a spring inside a kind of stone temple covered in ferns. I went down to drink from it, and felt its atmosphere and power.

……..

‘I climbed into the river where it ran on through a miniature ravine full of the bright, rich pinks of heather, bracken, stonecrop, thyme, gorse and the little yellow tormentil. I followed it through a ladder of waterfalls and pool, some of them deep enough to swim, interspersed with straight, high-speed runs between great slabs of rock. Here and there the stream would bend sharply to the left or right  and the water would climb up the rock wall and spout into thin air like an eel standing on its tail. Then it merged with another stream, running down an almost parallel ravine, and I slid, scrambled, waded, swam, plunged and surfed through it all until I was delivered into a deep, circling pool. A little further on, a solitary sycamore stood sentinel over a sheep-nibbled lawn of buttercups and daisies by a waterfall and another pool, long and deep, between black slabs of rock, where I swam against the stream and hovered in the clear black water. Here I made my camp, hanging my towel to dry in the sycamore branches. I made delicious tea with the river water, devoured bread, goats’ cheese and pennywort leaves, and fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the song of the waterfall, of Minnehaha, Laughing Water, the bride of Hiawatha, watched over by the dark shapes of menhirs on the hilltops.’

Roger Deakin

Week 436: Iris by Night, by Robert Frost

There are innumerable poems of love, not so many of friendship, and I think that this one, with its perfect closing image, is among the best of them. In the summer of 1914 a group of poets gathered around Dymock in the Gloucestershire countryside, among them being Robert Frost, newly arrived from America, and Edward Thomas, then known only as a reviewer and a writer of prose. Frost and Thomas took many walks together, discussing poetry, and it is these as much as anything that seem to have catalysed Thomas’s wonderful late flowering as a poet. We can date the walk described in this poem precisely, to August 6th, 1914, a night of full moon.

‘From all division time or foe can bring’ – yes, in the platonic realm of poetry, but one has to wonder: would that friendship would have lasted so well in practice, if Thomas had survived? It is tempting to believe so, but I have doubts. Frost went back to the States after the outbreak of war, and proved an unsatisfactory correspondent by letter. There was also the fact that he did not get on well with Edward’s wife Helen, who found him bossy and given to offensive remarks; indeed they later had quite a falling out over Helen’s accounts of her marriage in the two volumes ‘As It Was’ and ‘World Without End’ (lately republished in one volume entitled ‘Under Storm’s Wing’), which Frost felt portrayed his friend in too unmanly a light. I can see his point in a way, yet I have always found those accounts interesting and in places very moving.

No, that summer was the golden time of their friendship, and as Frost observes in another fine poem (see week 134), ‘nothing gold can stay’.

Iris by Night

One misty evening, one another’s guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

Robert Frost