Week 500: The Sun Used To Shine, by Edward Thomas

Well, I seem to have made it to week 500: my thanks to all those who have encouraged and assisted me on the way. Having just turned seventy-eight I can’t absolutely guarantee that I’ll make it through the next ten years to week 1000 but I’ll do my best.For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,/Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green’.

I started in week one with the poet I love best, Edward Thomas, so it seems fitting to mark this optimistically putative halfway point with another of his. This one, written in the spring of 1916, is a deeply wistful recollection of the evening walks he took with Robert Frost in the fields around Dymock during the great summer of their friendship, 1914, and shows him becoming the master of a relaxed, conversational style, able to take in its stride enjambements and potentially awkward rhymes. It also shows that equilibrium I like so much in his work: how, although a very self-orientated poet concerned, reasonably enough, with his own moods and desires, he always has time too for the otherness of the world. That ‘yellow flavorous coat/Of an apple wasps had undermined’, for example – I suppose it might be possible to devise some symbolic role for this in the poem, but I think it is there simply because he took a quiet pleasure in such things for their own sake and liked to give them their due, just as he does to the betony, a common enough wild flower with its stiff reddish spike, renowned in herbal medicine but up to that point little celebrated in verse. But best of all in this poem I like the closing lines, with their aching sense of the transience of all things, even memory, balanced by the consoling thought that for others at least friendship, love and the beauty of the earth will go on.

The Sun Used to Shine

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
We turned from men or poetry

To rumours of the war remote
Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermined;

Or a sentry of dark betonies,
The stateliest of small flowers on earth,
At the forest verge; or crocuses
Pale purple as if they had their birth

In sunless Hades fields. The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fades –
Like the brook’s water glittering

Under the moonlight – like those walks
Now – like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences – like memory’s sand

When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.

Edward Thomas 

Week 499: The Lady of Shalott, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Some years back I entertained a Japanese pen-friend and his wife, over in the UK on a visit. Their English was very good, just a little stilted, and certainly way better than my Japanese, which was limited, not very usefully, to a few hundred technical terms relating to the game of go. The conversation turned to television.

‘We very much like Tennyson’, said my friend. ‘We watch always. Very strong’.

I was greatly impressed, and a little touched. What a cultured people the Japanese were, huddled round their TV sets watching programmes about one of our national poets. They certainly put our own TV producers to shame. What did we ever get? Betjeman and his bloody teddy-bear. And yes, I supposed that poems like ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ and ‘The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet’ were indeed pretty stirring stuff. Even ‘Idylls of the King’ had its moments.

‘’Very forceful lady’, chuckled my friend’s wife.

I assumed she must mean the Lady of Shalott. Was ‘forceful’ quite the word though? It’s a good poem, but I always thought the Lady was a bit drippy, sitting in her tower all day weaving and moping after Sir Lancelot. But maybe the Japanese had different notions of female empowerment.

‘We like Jane very much’, said my friend.

Jane? Now I was getting confused. As far as I could recall she wasn’t named in the poem, but in the original legend wasn’t she called Elaine?

At this point my wife stepped in. ‘They’re talking about Jane Tennison’, she said. ‘You know, the woman police chief in “Prime Suspect”. Played by Helen Mirren.’

Ah, right. Sorry, Alfred, it seems that you may not be that big in Japan after all. But to make up, here at least is that colourful, magical poem with its very un-Helen-Mirren-like heroine.

Shallop: a light river boat with sails and oars.
Baldric: An often ornamental belt worn over one shoulder to support a sword or bugle.

The Lady of Shalott

I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road run by
    To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
    The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
    Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
    The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d                 
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
     Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?             
Or is she known in all the land,
     The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
    Down to tower’d Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, ‘ ‘Tis the fairy
    Lady of Shalott.’

II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
    To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
    The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
    Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
    Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad
    Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two.
She hath no loyal Knight and true,
    The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
    And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
    The Lady of Shalott.

III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
    Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
    Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
    As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung
    Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
    As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
    Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
    As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river
    Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
    She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
    The Lady of Shalott.

IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining.
Heavily the low sky raining
    Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With a glassy countenance
    Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right —
The leaves upon her falling light —
Thro’ the noises of the night,
    She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
    Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
    Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And around the prow they read her name,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
   All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Week 498: The Combat, by Edwin Muir

This week’s poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is a rather strange one, even cryptic. What exactly are these combatants? Did Muir have some specific allegorical intent? Could he be thinking, for example, of some smaller country being invaded by its more powerful neighbour, and simply refusing to surrender or die? And so ‘The killing beast that cannot kill/Swells and swells in its fury till/You’d almost think it was despair’. Remind you of anything? But I think it more likely that Muir, with his Christian faith, intended the poem simply as a parable of the eternal struggle between evil, which can seem to have on its side, in Auden’s phrase, ‘the mass and majesty of this world, all/That carries weight and always weighs the same’, and good which can sometimes seem able to offer no more than a passive endurance.

The Combat

It was not meant for human eyes,
That combat on the shabby patch
Of clods and trampled turf that lies
Somewhere beneath the sodden skies
For eye of toad or adder to catch.

And having seen it I accuse
The crested animal in his pride,
Arrayed in all the royal hues
Which hide the claws he well can use
To tear the heart out of the side.

Body of leopard, eagle’s head
And whetted beak, and lion’s mane,
And frost-grey hedge of feathers spread
Behind — he seemed of all things bred.
I shall not see his like again.

As for his enemy there came in
A soft round beast as brown as clay;
All rent and patched his wretched skin;
A battered bag he might have been,
Some old used thing to throw away.

Yet he awaited face to face
The furious beast and the swift attack.
Soon over and done.  That was no place
Or time for chivalry or for grace.
The fury had him on his back.

And two small paws like hands flew out
To right and left as the trees stood by.
One would have said beyond a doubt
That was the very end of the bout,
But that the creature would not die.

For ere the death-stroke he was gone,
Writhed, whirled, into his den,
Safe somehow there.  The fight was done,
And he had lost who had all but won.
But oh his deadly fury then.

A while the place lay blank, forlorn,
Drowsing as in relief from pain.
The cricket chirped, the grating thorn
Stirred, and a little sound was born.
The champions took their posts again.

And all began.  The stealthy paw
Slashed out and in.  Could nothing save
These rags and tatters from the claw?
Nothing.  And yet I never saw
A beast so helpless and so brave.

And now, while the trees stand watching, still
The unequal battle rages there.
The killing beast that cannot kill
Swells and swells in his fury till
You’d almost think it was despair.

Edwin Muir

Week 497: Autobiography, by Louis MacNeice

This week’s poem by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) is a kind of balancing act, self-revealing yet reticent, the trauma it turns on evident yet not explicit, controlled and distanced by the ballad form, so that without knowledge of the context the reader is like someone looking over the edge of a boat at a nameless shadow moving in the depths below. Awareness of the poet’s childhood circumstances provides most of the answer: his mother died when Louis was seven, having spent her last year in a Dublin nursing home, and Louis obscurely blamed himself for her death, his birth having been a difficult one. But the import of the refrain remains a little elusive. ‘Come back early or never come’ – is Louis talking to himself? To his mother’s shade? Whatever the case, it seems to me, as so often with MacNeice, a poem at once skilful and disturbing.

Note: ‘wore his collar the wrong way round’ – MacNeice’s father was a Protestant minister.

Autobiography

In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.

Come back early or never come.

My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.

Come back early or never come.

My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.

Come back early or never come.

When I was five the black dreams came
Nothing after was quite the same.

Come back early or never come.

The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.

Come back early or never come.

When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.

Come back early or never come.

When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied.

Come back early or never come.

I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.

Come back early or never come.

Louis MacNeice

Week 496: At Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

This is one of the first poems I ever remember liking, met in some nineteen-fifties collection of verse for primary school children compiled by an anthologist who clearly still regarded the Georgians as rather too racily modern. Somehow it stood out for me among the pages of R.L. Stevenson, Sir Henry Newbolt, Walter de la Mare & co. as giving me that frisson of the mysterious that I was later to encounter again in the early chapters of Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, where the hero searches for his lost domain, the château that he had stumbled across in one of his escapades. I still find it an evocative little poem, perhaps because it takes me back to a time when I had no clear mental map of the world beyond my own woods and fields and anything seemed possible.

William Allingham (1824-1889) was an Irish poet and diarist, born in Ballyshannon in County Donegal, and probably now best remembered, if at all, for one poem ‘The Faeries’ (‘Up the airy mountain,/Down the rushy glen,/We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men’). Some may consider this unfortunate.

At Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

The Boy from his bedroom window
Looked over the little town
And away to the bleak black upland
Under a clouded moon.

The moon came forth from her cavern;
He saw the sudden gleam
Of a tarn in the swarthy moorland;
Or perhaps it was all a dream.

For I never could find that water
In all my walks and rides:
Far off in the Land of Memory
That midnight pool abides.

Many fine things had I glimpse of
And said ‘I shall find them one day.’
Whether within or without me
They were, I cannot say.

William Allingham

Week 495: Siste Smerte, by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

The Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) wrote this poignant lyric towards the end of his long life. I don’t know what kind of reputation Bjørnson enjoys now, but when I was in Norway some sixty years ago I got the impression that while Norwegian readers were proud of Ibsen for having gained an international reputation, they reserved their actual affection much more for Bjørnson, whom they regarded as their national poet. Be that as it may, he did not figure in my Cambridge syllabus, which concerned itself with more modern figures like Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, and my Cambridge tutor was slightly dismissive of him as ‘a Grand Old Man’ of literature. I rather liked him, but what do I know…

The translation that follows is my own.

Siste Smerte

Å, nu har jeg lært det
hva jeg fryktet først,
at den siste smerte,
den er også størst.

Kan ei mer arbeide,
har ei krefter nok,
kan ei lenger veide
mine tankers flokk.

De er over fjellet,
samles aldri mer.
Og jeg selv på hellet
imot graven ner.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Last Pain

Ah, now I have learned it,
What I feared at first:
That the pain we suffer last,
That one is the worst.

Can no longer labour,
All my powers wane,
Cannot herd together
My flock of thoughts again.

Far across the mountain
Forever more they stray,
While upon the nether slope
I take a downward way.

Week 494: To A Young Poet, by R.S.Thomas

Like many of R.S.Thomas’s poems, this one is somewhat bleak and perhaps a little extreme, in, for example, the idea that nothing written in a poet’s twenties will cause the poet anything but shame later on. Keats and Wilfred Owen died at twenty-five, Keith Douglas at twenty-four, and while I am all for standards, to suggest that they, had they lived, would of necessity come to disown even their better efforts seems to me to be setting the bar a little high. But of course, the poem could be intended to be read as a soliloquy in which the poet is specifically addressing his younger self, in which case fair enough.

Either way, from a professional point of view I find it a very interesting poem, and I much admire its reticent and self-critical spirit, and its implied willingness to destroy work that does not come up to scratch. I know that some poets keep everything they ever write: drafts, variants, even rejects. I find this slightly horrifying. We have no duty to supply grist to the academic mills. Squeeze, scrap, burn, kill, say I. Did any poet ever regret destroying a poem? I doubt it. If there’s really something wanting to be said it will come back sooner or later in another and perhaps truer form. But did any poet ever regret not destroying a poem? I suspect that the Elysian fields are full of poets wandering about, oblivious of the asphodel, and muttering to themselves: ‘Crass incompetence… what on earth was I thinking of…’ My personal practice from time to time is to burn my accumulated rejects in the garden at midnight under a full moon, then cover the ashes with three spadefuls of earth. My wife says she sometimes wonders what she married. I don’t understand this at all. Some people turn into werewolves; I just like to be thorough.

Anyway, over to R.S.Thomas…

To A Young Poet

For the first twenty years you are still growing,
Bodily, that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.

From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.

You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.

R.S.Thomas

Week 493: An tè dhan tug mi …, by Sorley Maclean

If you think that Scots Gaelic poetry is all about misty corries and wild sea-voyages and laments for fallen chieftains – and of course it is, in part, all those things – then the poetry of Sorley Maclean (or to give him his proper Gaelic name, Somhairle MacGillEain) may come as a bit of a surprise, being quite edgy and modern, concerned with his difficulties in love and experiences in war. In a way Sorley (1911-1996) is an odd case, since he managed to acquire an international reputation as a poet despite writing in what is now, sadly, very much a minority language, and one little known outside Scotland, or indeed even within it: a tongue that for most is enchantingly but irredeemably alien. So, given the relatively small number of readers able to engage properly with the original texts, I think that a good deal of that reputation has had to be taken on trust. True, Sorley provided his own English translations of his poems, which are functional but to my mind read a little awkwardly. Really it would be surprising if this were not the case: there are of course many examples of poets able to write competent verse in more than one language, but real poetry? Offhand I can’t think of any: the head may speak many languages; the heart, only one.

Anyway, here is one of Sorley’s poignant lyrics of despairing love, and, for the reasons given, I have ventured to offer my own translation rather than his. Hm, what’s the Gaelic for chutzpah: perhaps ‘dànachd’ comes close…

An tè dhan tug mi . . .

An tè dhan tug mi uile ghaol,
cha tug i gaol dhomh air a shon;
ged a chiùrradh mise air a sàillibh,
cha do thuig i ’n tàmailt idir.

Ach tric an smuaintean na h-oidhch’
an uair bhios m’ aigne ’na coille chiair,
thig osag chuimhne ’gluasad duillich,
a’ cur a furtachd gu luasgan.

Agus bho dhoimhne coille chuim,
o fhreumhach snodhaich ’s meangach meanbh,
bidh ’n eubha throm: carson bha h-àille
mar fhosgladh fàire ri latha?

Somhairle MacGillEain

She to whom I gave

I gave to her all love; she gave to me
No love in return.
Although I suffered for her sake
She never saw the shame of it at all.

But often when I lie awake
Memory like a night-breeze
Stirs the dim wood of my mind,
Turning my peace to unrest.

And from the heart of that wood,
From sap-filled root and slender bough,
Will come the heavy cry: why was her beauty
Like a door that opened for me on to day?

Week 492: Empty Vessel, by Hugh MacDiarmid

As I noted in week 172, Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps, along with Ezra Pound, the most politically problematic, or at least confusing, of 20th century English-language poets: at various times, and sometimes at the same time, he gave his allegiance to fascism, communism and Scottish nationalism, all of which may have stemmed from his loathing for the English political class leading him to subscribe to the dubious proposition that my enemy’s enemy is of necessity my friend. Be that as it may, it seems to me that he wrote some very memorable stuff, and I think that this poem, for example, shows him at his best, a pure compassionate lyric about a woman whom I take to have lost a child, either by miscarriage or from infant mortality

Ayont: beyond
Cairney: small stony hill? (not sure about this – related to Gaelic carnan, small cairn?)
Tousie: dishevelled, tousled
Bairnie: small child
Wunds: winds
Warlds: worlds
Licht: light
Aa: all

Empty Vessel

I met ayont the cairney
A lass wi tousie hair
Singin till a bairnie
That was nae langer there.

Wunds wi warlds to swing
Dinna sing sae sweet,
The licht that bends owre aa thing
Is less ta’en up wi’it.

Hugh MacDiarmid

Week 491: California Hills In August, by Dana Gioia

I relish this poem for its particularity even though, paradoxically, I am not a fan of the kind of weather or landscape it particularizes: personally, during the rare heatwaves we have in this country, I hate ‘the bright stillness of the noon’ that seems to hold one trapped in a suspension of energy and interest and long for the cool of the evening when the infinite possibilities of earth and sky open up again. So yes, I would be just that ‘someone who found/these fields unbearable’, but that doesn’t stop me admiring the skill with which they are evoked, and I guess the truth is, as Gioia suggests, that it all depends what you have grown up with, on that first imprinting of the soul.

California Hills In August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain —
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Dana Gioia

Postscipt: If you feel a bit hot and dusty after reading this poem you could always freshen up with a dip into Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’, that includes lines like:

‘Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard….’

And ends

‘…..when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’