Week 267: Directive, by Robert Frost

I think this is a wonderful poem, and one of Frost’s greatest, and yet I find it also one of his most elusive: I feel that from long acqaintance with and admiration for his work I ought to be as attuned to Frost’s thought as anyone, yet every time I think I have this one sussed out I come back to it and realise there is another resonance I have missed, another seemingly random detail whose significance I have overlooked. This is a journey poem and as such suitably full of signposts, but you have to be careful with signposts in a Frost poem: they may be like the ones in wartime, turned to point in a wrong direction to confuse those who he feels have no business in the country. And as the poet himslef confesses at the start of this one, he is a guide who ‘only has at heart your getting lost’. Getting lost seems indeed to be a key theme: lost, that is, in the sense of escaping from the confusion of our present, and perhaps from the prison of our own too burdensome identity, and presenting ourselves in a state of nameless innocence, like children entering what may not be the kingdom of heaven but is at least a time and place of greater spiritual clarity, back up the line and so nearer to the mysterious spring of our existence here on earth. ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad’ – surely this is one of the most touching lines any poet ever wrote, and yet be careful with that signpost: it is easy to forget that the children in their simplicity were glad, and it is us that are doing the weeping. A journey poem and a spell poem: in another place Frost speaks of a poem as being a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, but this one, like many others of his, offers a stay that some will surely find much more than momentary.


Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry–
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Robert Frost


Week 266: The Price, by Stuart Henson

Back to modern times: Stuart Henson has published several books of well-received poetry and has a site at http://www.stuarthenson.co.uk/ I think this poem exemplifies his lucid, evocative style.

The Price

Sometimes it catches when the fumes rise up
among the throbbing lights of cars, or as
you look away to dodge eye-contact with
your own reflection in the carriage-glass;
or in a waiting-room a face reminds you
that the colour supplements have lied
and some have pleasure and some pay the price.

Then all the small securities you built
about your house, your desk, your calendar
are blown like straws; and momentarily,
as if a scent of ivy or the earth
had opened up a childhood door, you pause,
to take the measure of what might have been
against the kind of life you settled for.

Stuart Henson

Week 265: The Garden of Love, by William Blake

It has to be admitted that when it comes to matters of sexual liberation, anyone going to the poets for moral guidance is likely to end up more than a little confused. Who do you listen to? Dante taking a stern view of the goings on between Paolo and Francesca: ‘quanti dolci pensier, quanto disier/menò costoro al doloroso passo?’  Shakespeare being fed up with the whole business of sex: ‘All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell’? Philip Larkin warning against ‘fulfilment’s desolate attic’? Or alternatively, the splendidly rambunctious Rabbie Burns telling the Establishment of his day to get stuffed: ‘The Kirk an’ State may join, and tell/To do sic things I mauna:/The Kirk an’ State may gae to hell/And I’ll gae to my Anna’? Or, as in this poem from ‘Songs of Innocence’, the equally free-spirited William Blake expressing much the same sentiment in a rather more figurative but no less incisive way? I think one has to be careful about taking Blake as a guide to life, since his dicta do lend themselves to misinterpretation, and many have found, for example, that the road of excess leads not to the palace of wisdom but simply to more excess. But I do like this poem, as, I suspect, does the author of that chaotic but wonderfully vivid modern trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’, Philip Pullman, who surely must count Blake as one of his inspirations.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I had never seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

William Blake

Week 264: Tywater, by Richard Wilbur

We lately lost the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), who died last month. I have always admired him for the way he steadfastly refused to jump on the confessional bandwagon of the nineteen sixties along with the like of Lowell, Berryman and Plath, but continued to write his own restrained and lucid verse. This disinclination to give his time what his time thought it wanted may have made him temporarily unfashionable, but in the house of poetry there are many mansions and surely one of them has Richard Wilbur’s name on it.

I had always assumed that this particular poem was a ruefully affectionate tribute to the nineteenth-century cowboy of the kind who was such a standard in the ‘B’ movies of my childhood, godless, maybe, but possessing, along with his impressive physical skills, a rough decency and sense of fair play. However, it appears that the inspiration is more recent than that: Wilbur served in the Second World War, at Anzio, in France and in Germany, and the poem commemorates a fellow-soldier, Corporal Tywater, a one time rodeo man, who was killed while serving in the infantry after taking a wrong turn in his jeep and driving into German hands.


Death of Sir Nihil, book the nth,
Upon the charred and clotted sward,
Lacking the lily of our Lord,
Alases of the hyacinth.

Could flicker from behind his ear
A whistling silver throwing knife
And with a holler punch the life
Out of a swallow in the air.

Behind the lariat’s butterfly
Shuttled his white and gritted grin,
And cuts of sky would roll within
The noose-hole, when he spun it high.

The violent, neat and practised skill
Was all he loved and all he learned;
When he was hit, his body turned
To clumsy dirt before he fell.

And what to say of him, God knows.
Such violence. And such repose.

Richard Wilbur

Week 263: The South Country, by Hilaire Belloc

My first encounter with this this poem came at the age of thirteen when I heard it declaimed by a sixth-former in assembly, as part of the school’s annual verse-speaking competition. I went home that night and wrote it out from memory – you can do this sort of thing when you are a thirteen year old just awakening to poetry. Sixty years on it’s still there in my mind: my taste may have shifted a bit towrds the less overt, but I think we owe some loyalty to our first loves, and I still like it for its associations and for a certain quality of pathos not normally associated with the big bouncy Belloc persona.

The South Country

When I am living in the Midlands
That are sodden and unkind,
I light my lamp in the evening:
My work is left behind;
And the great hills of the South Country
Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it’s there walking in the high woods
That I could wish to be,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me.

The men that live in North England
I saw them for a day:
Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,
Their skies are fast and grey;
From their castle-walls a man may see
The mountains far away.

The men that live in West England
They see the Severn strong,
A-rolling on rough water brown
Light aspen leaves along.
They have the secret of the Rocks,
And the oldest kind of song.

But the men that live in the South Country
Are the kindest and most wise,
They get their laughter from the loud surf,
And the faith in their happy eyes
Comes surely from our Sister the Spring
When over the sea she flies;
The violets suddenly bloom at her feet,
She blesses us with surprise.

I never get between the pines
But I smell the Sussex air;
Nor I never come on a belt of sand
But my home is there.
And along the sky the line of the Downs
So noble and so bare.

A lost thing could I never find,
Nor a broken thing mend:
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get towards the end.
Who will there be to comfort me
Or who will be my friend?

I will gather and carefully make my friends
Of the men of the Sussex Weald;
They watch the stars from silent folds,
They stiffly plough the field.
By them and the God of the South Country
My poor soul shall be healed.

If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.
I will hold my house in the high wood
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.

Hilaire Belloc

Week 262: Rocky Acres, by Robert Graves

This is an early Robert Graves poem, maybe the first in which he found his true voice, and it remains a favourite of mine, perhaps the more so because I believe the inspiration for it to be the Rhinog country near Harlech in North Wales where I had a fine day’s walking with my eldest son some thirty years ago, taking in the Roman Steps, Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. It’s pretty rough terrain – boulders, bog and bracken, and that’s just the footpaths – but I was very fit then from running half-marathons, and my son equally fit from fifty-mile hikes with the Venture Scouts, and we covered a lot of ground. Reading the poem brings it all back: the white stars of saxifrage between the slabs of the Steps, the sunlit quietness of the morning, the view north from Rhinog Fawr to the mountains of Snowdonia, only the peaks in mist, the fierce rhythmic climbs to the summits, sweat dripping on every stone, then the glissades down the boulders, like a kind of physical chess, moving from slab to slab, with a cool shower of rain passing over to leave a sweetness in the still air. Ah, those were the days.

Note: Graves was a great reviser of his poems after publication, something that I find a bit annoying especially as I don’t think the changes were always for the better, and slightly different wordings exist, especially in the first verse; not being sure of the chronology, I have stuck with the version I know.

Rocky Acres

This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.

He soars and he hovers, rocking on his wings,
He scans his wide parish with a sharp eye,
He catches the trembling of small hidden things,
He tears them in pieces dropping from the sky:
Tenderness and pity the land will deny
Where life is but nourished from water and rock,
A hardy adventure, full of fear and shock.

Time has never journeyed to this lost land,
Crakeberries and heather bloom out of date,
The rocks jut, the streams flow singing on either hand,
Careless if the season be early or late.
The skies wander overhead, now blue, now slate:
Winter would be known by his cold, cutting snow
If June did not borrow his armour also.

Yet this is my country beloved by me best,
The first land that rose from Chaos and the Flood,
Nursing no fat valleys for comfort and rest,
Trampled by no hard hooves, stained with no blood.
Bold immortal country whose hill-tops have stood
Strongholds for the proud gods when on earth they go,
Terror for fat burghers in far plains below.

Robert Graves

Week 261: Casehistory: Alison (head injury), by U.A.Fanthorpe

Ursula Fanthorpe (1929-2009) studied English language and literature at Oxford and went on to teach it for sixteen years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but then abandoned teaching to work as a clerk and receptionist at a Bristol hospital. This is a good example of the poems that came out of that experience: compassionate without sentimentality, and admirably rooted in real life.

Casehistory: Alison (head injury)

(she looks at her photograph)

I would like to have known
My husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter.
A bright girl she was.

Enmeshed in comforting
Fat, I wonder at her delicate angles.
Her autocratic knee

Like a Degas dancer’s
Adjusts to the observer with airy poise,
That now lugs me upstairs

Her face, broken
By nothing sharper than smiles, holds in its smiles
What I have forgotten.

She knows my father’s dead,
And grieves for it, and smiles. She has digested
Mourning. Her smile shows it.

I, who need reminding
Every morning, shall never get over what
I do not remember.

Consistency matters.
I should like to keep faith with her lack of faith,
But forget her reasons.

Proud of this younger self,
I assert her achievements, her A levels,
Her job with a future.

Poor clever girl! I know,
For all my damaged brain, something she doesn’t:
I am her future.

A bright girl she was.