Week 277: A Father’s Death, by John Hewitt

Another lesson from the Irish poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) in how form may be used to contain feeling as a cartridge-case contains gunpowder.

A Father’s Death

It was no vast dynastic fate
when gasp by gasp my father died,
no mourner at the palace gate
or tall bells tolling slow and wide.

We sat beside the bed: the screen
shut out the hushed, the tiptoe ward,
and now and then we both would lean
to catch what seemed a whsipered word.

My mother watched her days drag by,
two score and five the married years,
yet never weakened to a cry
who was so ready with her tears.

Then, when dawn washed the polished floor
and steps and voices woke and stirred
with wheels along the corridor
my father went without a word.

The sick, the dying, bed by bed,
lay clenched around their own affairs;
that one behind a screen was dead
was someone’s grief, but none of theirs.

It was no vast dynastic death,
no nation silent round that throne,
when, letting go his final breath,
a lonely man went out alone.

John Hewitt


Week 276: Parents at Eighty, by Jack Winter

A very sad and moving piece, far removed from a Darby and Joan view of growing old together. I have to say it doesn’t really accord with the majority of my own observations: from what I’ve seen couples lucky enough to survive together into old age tend to experience, now that they are relieved of the stresses of child-rearing, a new serenity and a new closeness, perhaps founded on the realisation that now more than ever is the time to love that well which thou must leave ere long. But I am certainly prepared to believe that this may not always be the case.

Parents at Eighty

Who loved each other all this while
Have now begun to hate.
(Too late, my love, and you, my love,
Too late, my love, too late).

He cannot bear the way she walks.
She cannot watch him sit.
(As for you, you’re none of three
And want no share of it).

They draw me into corners
Beyond the prying other
To dish me grievance heaped on tale
Of mother, father, mother.

He will not wear his ear device.
She says what’s not worth hearing.
He snores. She slurs. Not his nor hers
Is illness feared, but fearing.

She dare not… can not… never has.
He would… some other mate.
She’s joyless… he, deprived his joy.
(Too late, my love, too late).

Had she but known the wage of care
For every day of woe,
She’d not have tended him, she’d not.
(My love, it’s time to go).

(And you and I move homeward
Down tunnels shaped like years.
My love, I’ll do your smile for you,
If you will do my tears).

Jack Winter

Week 275: She Walked Unaware, by Patrick MacDonogh

The Irish poet Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961) was a contemporary of Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh, and incidentally an international hockey player. I love the Irish lilt of this one, and its folksong-like quality – indeed, its theme of the lover rejected in favour of a better prospect is a common one in Irish folksongs, such as ‘Going to Mass last Sunday’, that begins ‘Going to Mass last Sunday, my love she passed me by/I knew her mind was altered by the roving of her eye/I knew her mind was altered to a lad of higher degree/For it’s Molly, lovely Molly, your looks have wounded me’. But MacDonogh adds a lyrical awareness of the natural world not so common in folksong.

She Walked Unaware

Oh, she walked unaware of her own increasing beauty
That was holding men’s thoughts from market or plough,
As she passed by intent on her womanly duties
And she passed without leisure to be wayward or proud;
Or if she had pride then it was not in her thinking
But thoughtless in her body like a flower of good breeding.
The first time I saw her spreading coloured linen
Beyond the green willow she gave me gentle greeting
With no more intention than the leaning willow tree.

Though she smiled without intention yet from that day forward
Her beauty filled like water the four corners of my being,
And she rested in my heart like a hare in the form
That is shaped to herself. And I that would be singing
Or whistling at all times went silently then,
Till I drew her aside among straight stems of beeches
When the blackbird was sleeping and she promised that never
The fields would be ripe but I’d gather all sweetness,
A red moon of August would rise on our wedding.

October is spreading bright flame along stripped willows,
Low fires of the dogwood burn down to grey water, –
God pity me now and all desolate sinners
Demented with beauty! I have blackened my thought
In droughts of bad longing, and all brightness goes shrouded
Since he came with his rapture of wild words that mirrored
Her beauty and made her ungentle and proud.
Tonight she will spread her brown hair on his pillow,
But I shall be hearing the harsh cries of wild fowl.

Patrick MacDonogh

Week 274: On Wenlock Edge, by A.E.Housman

I walked along Wenlock Edge once. Still plenty of trees to be seen, but this was on a quiet evening of silver sun, far removed from Housman’s inner and outer weather. I suppose that Housman’s landscapes, compared with, say, those of Edward Thomas, may lack solidity and particularity, but for me they make up for it, as in this poem, with a luminous, time-layered, mythical quality.

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


Week 273: Ithaka, by C.P.Cavafy

This is one of the best known poems of the Greek poet Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863-1933), and I think even in translation it has a kind of morning freshness, a harking back to a Homeric age of heroes, while managing at the same time to be perfectly modern. 


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard)

Week 272: The Seventh Angel, by Zbigniew Herbert

We last met Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in week 124 with his offbeat, practically-minded take on ‘Hamlet’; here he turns his attention to angels and neatly undermines the glamour of sanctity in much the same way as he undermined the glamour of the tragic hero.

The Seventh Angel

The seventh angel
is completely different
even his name is different

he is no Gabriel
the aureate
upholder of the throne
and baldachin

and he’s no Raphael
tuner of choirs

and he’s also no
surveyor of infinity
perfect exponent of theoretical physics

is black and nervous
and has been fined many times
for illegal import of sinners

between the abyss
and the heavens
without a rest his feet go pit-a-pat

his sense of dignity is non-existent
and they only keep him in the squad
out of consideration for the number seven
but he is not like the others

not like the hetman of the hosts
all scales and feathery plumes

nor like Azrafael
interior decorator of the universe
warden of its luxuriant vegetation
his wings shimmering like two oak trees

not even like
apologist and cabalist

Shemkel Shemkel
– the angels complain
why are you not perfect

the byzantine artists
when they paint all seven
reproduce Shemkel
just like the rest

because they suppose
they might lapse into heresy
if they were to portray him
just as he is
black nervous
in his old threadbare nimbus

Zbigniew Herbert (tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Week 271: Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser, by D.M.Thomas

The poet prefixes this poem with the noteAt Tewkesbury Abbey is a lock of red-brown hair, belonging to Isabelle, Countess of Warwick, and dated 1429’

That is probably all you need to know to enjoy the poem, but to give a bit more background, Isabel le Despenser (1400-1439) was the posthumous daughter and eventually the sole heiress of Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was beheaded in 1399 for his part in a plot against Henry IV. Her mother was Constance of York, the daughter of Edmund of Langley, a son of King Edward III.

Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser

Better then stones and castles were my bones.
Better than spears and battles were my tears.
Better than towers and rafters was my laughter.
Better than light and stained glass was my sight.
Better than grate and boar-spit was my hate.
Better than rush and tapestry was my flush.
Better than gold and silver was my shiver.
Better than gloves and falcons was my love.
Better than crests and banners were my breasts.
Better than tombs and effigies was my womb.
Better than art and ikons was my hurt.
Better than crypts and candles were my friendships.
Better than leaf and parchment was my grief.
Better than mass and matins was my chatter.
Better than swans and bridges were my yawns.
Better than wool and weaving was my breathing.
Remember Isabelle le Despenser,
Who was as light and vivid as this hair.
We are all one.
She sees the clouds scud by, she breathes your air,
Pities the past and those who settled there.