Week 511: Sad Steps, by Philip Larkin

A lot of people seem to be celebrating the centenary of the birth of Philip Larkin, so I thought this week I’d add my twopenceworth.

Some of the celebration, it must be admitted, is a little guarded. When Andre Gide was asked who he thought was the greatest French writer of the nineteenth century, he is said to have answered ‘Victor Hugo, hélas’ (Victor Hugo, alas). In the same spirit, some people asked to name the best English poet of the second half of the twentieth century wish to add a ‘hélas’ to the name of Larkin. I suppose one can see why – as a role model for poetic skill and integrity he is superb, as a role model for social attitudes less so ­– but I can’t be bothered with such niggardliness: let’s just give the man his due. My choice this week is perhaps not one of Larkin’s very best poems, but it’s a very characteristic one that unites a skilful and pleasure-giving verbal surface with a moving and memorable insight into the human condition.

True, I find the register of the opening line a little jarring, but then I feel a bit prissy for feeling that. After all, one does grope back to a bed after a piss, and there should be nothing wrong with saying so in a poem, except that Larkin takes perhaps slightly too mischievous a delight in occasionally subverting his readers’ more genteel expectations.

Moving on from that minor cognitive dissonance on my part, one is soon on surer ground with eight lines that capture beautifully the kind of nocturnal scene that must be familiar to all of us, or at least to all of us who bother to look out of the window at night. I love that ‘loosely as cannon-smoke’, that ‘stone-coloured light’. The fourth stanza then strikes a slightly odd and discordant note, but I take Larkin to be sending up the kind of pretentious apostrophe to the moon that might be indulged in by more affected poets – an indulgence that he then rejects with a firm ‘No’, confronting us with the chilling recognition of an inhuman reality that cares nothing for us, yet has power to evoke in us our own all too human feelings of loss and regret. It’s a characteristically bleak ending, yet there is a kind of exhilaration here too, as if the poet were in some way relishing that inhumanness, that otherness of the scene, for the way it absorbs him, temporarily unburdening him of his own identity. As he remarks in another poem, ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’.

In one way, Larkin’s poems don’t need a lot of working at, since what he says is usually perfectly clear to any competent reader, one of the things that no doubt contributes to his popularity with the general reading public. But at the same time it is possible to go back to his poems and appreciate them a little more each time for the pleasure of their art and the quality of their insight. Clarity of thought, accuracy of observation, felicity of expression: these are what make poetry, and these at his best is what Larkin gives you.

The title, incidentally, is taken from one of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets in the sequence ‘Astrophel and Stella’: ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!’

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by 
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate— 
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Philip Larkin

Week 510: Never Any Good With Money, by Martin Simpson

This week’s piece was written by the folk artist Martin Simpson, and appears on his album ‘Prodigal Son’. As poetry it may be a bit rough and ready (and of course it’s better with the music), yet I find it very moving in the way it speaks for a whole generation of fragile, unfulfilled, war-torn twentieth-century lives, and also portrays a father-son relationship that will resonate with many. Certainly I see in his portrayal much of my own kindly but improvident father, a man who was deeply unsettled by any surplus funds that came his way and disposed of them as quickly as possible in slot machines or by improbable bets with the local bookmaker. Money, in the phrase of the time, ‘burned a hole in his pocket’, and this left my much thriftier mother to keep the family finances just about afloat, which she did by squirrelling away small sums from her meagre weekly housekeeping allowance into a complex system of secret purses hidden around the house. Thus, when a big bill like the annual rates came around (this being nominally my father’s responsibility) and he professed himself unable to pay it, she would produce her ‘rates purse’ with a triumphant flourish and the words ‘You’d better have this then!’. At which he would say, ‘Well, girl, what a good little manager you are!’, and she would glow with pride. Yes, I know – modern women everywhere will be tearing their hair out, but what can I say: it was a different world back then; he loved her and he played her and when he died of cancer at seventy after a lifetime’s heavy smoking she mourned him every day for twenty-three years.

‘Not hard enough for the hod’: not tough enough for physical labour, such as on a building site.
‘Norton’: a long-established make of motorcycle, much esteemed by some even if, according to the song, ‘they don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52’.
‘Split cane rod’: a kind of fly-fishing rod made of bamboo; I’m no angler but I believe these would now be regarded as a bit vintage, having been replaced by more modern materials such as carbon fibre.
‘Pirate King’: a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.
’Fulmars’:  a genus of seabirds, breeding on cliffs and superficially resembling gulls.
’Eyebright’ a wildflower of the Euphrasia genus, formerly used to treat eye infections.
’Traveller’s Joy’: another name for the woody hedgerow climber wild clematis.

Never Any Good With Money

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When your grammar school days were over
It was nineteen-seventeen
And you did the right and proper thing
You were just eighteen.
You were never mentioned in dispatches
You never mentioned what you did or saw,
You were just another keen young man
In the mud and stink of war.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be singing the ‘Pirate King’
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You came home from the Great War
With the pips of a Captain’s rank,
A German officer’s Luger
And no money in the bank.
Your family sent you down the coal mine
To learn to be Captain there
But you didn’t stand it very long
You needed the light and the air.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be watching the fulmars fly
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When the second war came along
You knew what should be done
You would reenlist to teach young men
The booby trap and the gun
And they sent you home to Yorkshire
With a crew and a Lewis gun
So you could save your seaside town
From the bombers of the Hun.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be finding the nightjar’s nest
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

And when my mother came to your door
With a baby in her arms,
Her big hurt boy, just nine years old,
Trying to keep her from harm,
If you had been a practical man
You would have been forewarned,
You would have seen that it never could work
And I would have never been born.

There’s no proper work in your seaside town
So you come here looking for a job,
You were storeman at the power station
Just before I came along.
Nobody talked about how you quit
But I know that’s what you did.
My mother said you were a selfish man
And I was your selfish kid.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
And your Norton it was soon gone
Along with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You showed me Eyebright in the hedgerow,
Speedwell and Traveller’s Joy,
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature’s ways,
The greatest gifts I have ever known
And I use them every day.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office maybe
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

Martin Simpson

Week 509: A Prospect of Death, by Andrew Young

This week an uncharacteristically self-revealing piece by the Scots poet Andrew Young (1885-1971), who is best known for his keen-eyed and idiosyncratic celebrations of the natural world – see, for example, week 19’s ‘The Sheaf’. But here he opens up emotionally in a way that may remind one of the later Hardy, except that the wife being ruefully addressed is still alive. It appears from Young’s biography (written jointly by his daughter and his son–in-law, the poet Edward Lowbury) that he was a complex man, subject to depressions, who could be warm and witty but could also be domineering and capable of unkindness. Well, maybe we all approach the end of our lives knowing that there have been times when we have failed of our charity, and hearing that ‘voice from the green-grained sticks of the fire’ that Hardy speaks of in his poem ‘Surview’:

You taught not that which you set about,’
Said my own voice talking to me;
‘That the greatest of things is Charity…’

And while a poem like this may not be much of an amends, one likes to think that it is something.

A Prospect of Death

If it should come to this
You cannot wake me with a kiss,
Think I but sleep too late
Or once again keep a cold angry state.

So now you have been told; —
I or my breakfast may grow cold,
But you must only say
‘Why does he miss the best part of the day?’

Even then you may be wrong;
Through woods torn by a blackbird’s song
My thoughts may often roam
While graver business make me stay at home.

There will be time enough
To go back to the earth I love
Some other day that week,
Perhaps to find what all my life I seek.

So do not dream of danger;
Forgive my lateness or my anger;
You have so much forgiven,
Forgive me this or that, or Hell or Heaven.

Andrew Young

Week 508: Her Strong Enchantments Failing, by A.E.Housman

The A.E. Housman psychodrama, featuring a somewhat romanticised stoicism or defiance of a hostile or at best uncaring universe, may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it has to be admitted that it finds a perfect expression in poems like this where he is able to harness the power of myth in the service of his own inner conflict.

I say ‘myth’, but there is a bit of a puzzle here. I had always assumed that the title of the mysterious and sinister ‘Queen of air and darkness’ was a traditional one – that Housman, renowned for his classical scholarship, was drawing on some appellation of, for example, Hecate, the goddess of the witches. The Wikipedia entry, however, identifies her with Morgause, the enchantress of Arthurian legend who is (unknown to him) Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of the ‘Orkney faction’, comprising Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. But this identification, I suspect, may be based purely on the work of T.H.White, who used it as the title of one of the books in his Arthurian quartet, and White may simply have taken the title from the Housman poem.

In short, I have been unable to find the phrase ‘queen of air and darkness’ existing before Housman, so suspect it is his own resonant invention, though no doubt inspired by traditional lore in some form. Do let me know if you can cast any further light on the matter.

‘limbecks’: a variant of ‘alembic’,  a kind of alchemist’s still, consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for the distillation of liquids.

‘towers of fear’: possibly an echo here of the Dark Tower in Browning’s poem, to which Childe Roland came. The poem, of course, predates Tolkien and his version of the Dark Tower, Barad-dûr.

Her strong enchantments failing

Her strong enchantments failing,
  Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
  And the knife at her neck,

The Queen of air and darkness
  Begins to shrill and cry,
‘O young man, O my slayer,
  To-morrow you shall die.’

O Queen of air and darkness,
  I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die to-morrow;
  But you will die to-day.

A.E. Housman

Week 507: My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear, by Charles Causley

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of the language and metric: this is a poem raw with anger and pity, that puts one somewhat in mind of Blake in his more lucid moments.

My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly!’ ‘Somersault!’

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

Charles Causley

Week 506: Shancoduff, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another poem of Patrick Kavanagh’s showing his deep attachment to his native patch, an attachment that combines the spiritual, almost mystical, with the concrete and practical (see also, for example, week 86’s ‘Threshing Morning’).

The puzzle in this poem is how to read the last line: ‘I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?’. Does one take it at face value: ‘I hear what you are saying, and yes, it is pretty depressing to think that this meagre patch is all I have to show for a life of devotion to my land and my craft’. Or does one hear a mocking, ‘am I bothered’ note: ‘I hear what you are saying, but why should I need a greater domain than these small hills that for me are as good as any Alps, or more wealth than the bright shillings of March sunlight that they offer me?’. Not surprisingly I favour the latter reading, but of course the two could coexist: many poets must have viewed their material poverty with a slight degree of rue while accepting it as the price of their spiritual plenty.

Shancoduff is a townland in Co. Monaghan, Ireland


My black hills have never seen the sun rising,
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.
Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been
Incurious as my black hills that are happy
When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.

My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.

The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
While the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: ‘Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.’
I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 505: At Lord’s, by Francis Thompson

I am not sure why I should find this piece of cricketing nostalgia by the Victorian poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907) so evocative, given that I have never really got on with ball games in general and cricket in particular. I mean, so many rules to remember, compared with running where ‘don’t start before the gun goes’ pretty much covers it. I was playing football recently against my two young grandsons, and while I admit that my understanding of the offside rule has always been tenuous at best, I wish someone would explain to me how I could have constantly been ruled offside when I was the only player on my team. I did in fact presume to query this, but was told very firmly ‘my ball, my rules’, so that was the end of that.

Still, it’s good to think of the tubercular, angst-ridden, opium-addicted Thompson finding solace in such an innocent pastime.

I take Hornby to be Albert Neilsen Hornby (1847-1925), a famous Victorian sportsman who captained the country at both rugby and cricket, and Barlow to be Richard Gorton Barlow (1851-1919), a well-known all-rounder. Readers may wish to update the references to something more modern like, say, Hutton and Bedser (note: my knowledge of the game’s heroes may not be entirely up to date).

‘repair’ in the sense of ‘to go to’, nothing to do with mending.

‘red roses’: presumably referring to the emblem of Thompson’s home county Lancashire; Thompson was born in Preston.

‘Southron’ an old or Scots word for ‘southern’.

At Lord’s

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:–
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Francis Thompson

Week 504: Nuits de juin, by Victor Hugo

This week being the week of the summer solstice I thought this lyric by Victor Hugo would make an appropriate offering for today. It was Hugo who in a poem about the biblical Ruth, ‘Booz endormi’, gave us that most beautiful image of the summer sky at night, when at the end of the poem Ruth looks up and wonders

Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l’éternel été,
Avait, en s’en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d’or dans le champ des étoiles’.

(‘What god, what harvester of the eternal summer,
Had, as he went, so carelessly thrown down
That golden sickle in the field of stars’).

But this lyric too seems to me to capture beautifully the airy, dreamlike quality of these short June nights.

The freeish translation that follows is my own.

Nuits de juin

L’été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant;
Les yeux fermés, l’oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu’à demi d’un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l’ombre paraît meilleure;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

Victor Hugo

June Nights

In summer, when day’s fled, and on the plain
Flowers pour their heady scents out far around,
Our eyes shut, ears half-open still for sound,
We lie in lucid sleep, or wake again.

Purer the stars now, sweet the shaded bower,
The heaven’s dome still flushed with day’s last light,
While, at the bottom of the sky, all night
The white dawn wanders, waiting for its hour.

Week 503: Deaths of Flowers, by Edith Scovell

Last week’s offering by Frances Horovitz led me to remember this other fine flower-and-death-themed poem by Edith Scovell (1907-1999). If you are going to stake a whole poem on one image it had better be a good one and it had better be original, but I think Edith’s beautifully observed tulip certainly does the job in this elegiac yet life-affirming piece. And take a moment to appreciate the precision of that ‘flamboyant’ in the penultimate line, and how fittingly the word’s modern sense of ‘showy’ is underpinned by an awareness of its etymology, coming as it does from the French flamboyer, to flame or blaze.

Deaths Of Flowers

I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again – though all achieved is
No more than a clenched sadness,

The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.

E. J. Scovell

Week 502: Flowers, by Frances Horovitz

This week another elegiac poem by Frances Horovitz (1938-1983), foreshadowing her own early death (see week 80).

I have tried to figure out if the particular flowers mentioned, soapwort and figwort, are meant to have any special symbolic resonance for the poem, but nothing obvious comes to my mind. Soapwort yields a vegetable saponin used as a laundering agent by mediaeval fullers, figwort is so named not because it had anything to do with the fruit, but because it was used as a curative for the ‘fig’, or piles. So possibly one has to ascribe their particular appearance in the poem to happenstance: these are simply the flowers the poet picked that day that stuck in her mind, perhaps because they are not especially well-known or celebrated.

But the poem as a whole surely does have a resonance, and a mythopoeic one at that. That final image of the poet holding up the flowers ‘as torch and talisman/Against the coming dark’ – just so, one thinks, might the flower-gathering Persephone have held up her blooms in a last affirmation of life and springtime before dark Hades carried her off to his underworld.

(for Winifred Nicholson)

a dozen or more,
I picked one summer afternoon
from field and hedgerow.
Resting against a wall
I held them up
to hide the sun.
Cell by cell,
exact as dance,
I saw the colour,
structure, purpose
of each flower.
I named them with their secret names.
They flamed in air.

But, waking
I remember only two
– soapwort and figwort,
the lilac and the brown.
The rest I guess at
but cannot see
– only myself,
almost a ghost upon the road,
without accoutrement,
holding the flowers
as torch and talisman
against the coming dark.

Frances Horovitz