Week 407: So Many Summers, by Norman MacCaig

‘So Many Summers’ by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) is a good example of how a poem can be formally constrained and seemingly transparent in its language, yet dense enough with meaning to open up whole avenues of reflection. What is it about the juxtaposition of those two images, of hind’s skeleton and decaying boat, that resonates so? And what is this malice that time adds? As I interpret these lines, it is the way that the living thing becomes indistinguishable from the artefact: that once life has departed from the animate it too is no more than a collection of molecules, subject to exactly the same laws of decay as anything else. But do the phrases ‘neat geometries’ and ‘already dead but still to die’ suggest something about the power of art to preserve for a while some stripped-down quintessence of a thing, before its final dissolution and oblivion? I am reminded here of Keith Douglas’s lines: ‘Remember me when I am dead/And simplify me when I am dead’. And what precisely is the tone and message of the last line: ‘So many summers, and I have lived them too’? Is this a wry recognition that his own time too is coming to an end? Or, read with an emphasis on the ‘lived’, is it a kind of defiant gratitude for his own survival, for having been allowed this enduring richness of experience? 

For me, this is definitely one of those poems where you wish you had had the chance to discuss it with its creator, with the caveat, of course, that poets themselves do not always fully understand, or at least, cannot always articulate in other words, what it is that has been given them to say during the writing of the poem. 

So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind’s neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one –
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Norman MacCaig

Week 406: Against Geologies, by David Sutton

Our wedding anniversary yesterday, and this year for the first time my wife and I agreed not to buy each other cards, given all the hassle with masks, hand sanitisers etc currently attached to going into shops. So I thought the least I could do for my companion of fifty-four years was to dig out this one from my ‘Collected Poems’ and rededicate it to her as some token of recompense for all those times when the process of composition has made me less than usually attentive to her discourse or, as she likes to put it, when I have been away with the fairies.

Against Geologies

Our seconds rain like shells of lime
To build great thicknesses of time:
We watch the secret moments fall
Anonymous beyond recall,
Since who will look for you and me
In those white beds of history?

But if they do, with prying pen
When all our now has turned to then,
Let them not think, because they find
Some particle we left behind,
They know the vanished sea above
That was our salt and sunlit love.

These words I leave for them to learn
Like lily’s stem or print of fern
Are but our shadow in the stone
And all the rest is ours alone.
Then what a world of touch and talk
Shall lie compacted into chalk.

David Sutton

Week 405: Full Moon and Little Frieda, by Ted Hughes

This must be one of the best-known and best-loved of all Ted Hughes’s poems, but again I include it just in case anyone’s missed it.

It is not, I think, a poem that needs to be over-analysed. Yes, one can link it to Ted’s shamanistic preoccupations, to moon goddesses, feminine principles and so on, but for me it is a poem about primal wonder. On the one hand there is the wonder of the small child – I believe Ted’s daughter Frieda was between one and two at the time – at an extraordinary fact, at the existence a great round silver rock floating in the sky in the earth’s backyard. But equally, on the other hand, the closing two lines suggest that there is a reciprocated wonder on the part of the universe at an even more extraordinary fact, that a collection of cells should come together, grow, be aware of it, and give it names. And just as the child brings to its act of primal perception nothing beyond the bare name, so, I would claim, we need interpose no baggage of our own between ourselves and this beautiful and tender poem.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –

And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.

‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon, Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

Week 404: The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

Philip Larkin famously claimed that the ‘myth kitty’ was exhausted, meaning that it was time to give up writing poems that relied on the convenient shorthand of tropes from a shared  classical culture, and one can see that for him this was a necessary part of his literary program of reclaiming poetry for the common reader by rooting it in the accessible ordinary. But centuries of shared tradition are not so easily put aside, and in the right hands, and used in the right way, the myth kitty can still retain much of its old potency. As in this densely woven poem by Seamus Heaney, where we have allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (‘damned if I look back’), Pan chasing the nymph Syrinx (‘a fleet god gaining/Upon you turned to a reed’), the Persephone myth (the scattered trail of stanza two) and just for good measure a reference to Hansel and Gretel from Germanic folktale.

But these allusions do not supplant the basic human story here, merely add a layer of resonance to it, and that story appears to be one of regret for a more innocent time of young love, and an apprehension that the poet’s wife and marriage have suffered too much from his divided loyalties. Nothing is made explicit, and yet I think the poem can be seen as echoing the reproach that Heaney puts in the mouth of his wife in another poem, ‘An Afterwards’: ‘You left us first, and then those books, behind’.

The result, as so often with Heaney, is a poem finely balanced and finely expressed. It is true that a reader unfamiliar with Orpheus and Eurydice, Pan and Persephone, and possibly these days even Hansel and Gretel, will miss out on a dimension of the poem and may feel excluded by it, but others will enjoy having the echoes stirred for them. Larkin may not have approved, but Heaney too was a reclaimer.

The Underground

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tense as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Seamus Heaney

Week 403: Musée des Beaux Arts, by W.H.Auden

I think this is one of W.H.Auden’s finest poems, showing his ability to reflect generally on the human condition while never losing sight of the concrete. It’s probably too well known to need any recommendation from me, but just in case…

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Week 402: Prayer Before Birth, by Louis MacNeice

This poem was written in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and has the fearful and claustrophobic quality of those times, yet it may seem just as relevant today, when we have new perils and new tyrannies of thought to contend with, and when those of us who feel we have, as it turned out, been lucky enough in our time of birth to have lived through the late afternoon of a still decent country may be just as apprehensive now as MacNeice was then about the kind of world that we are leaving our grandchildren and their children to grow up in.

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis MacNeice

Week 401: The River, by Bruce Springsteen

I believe that the singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen is most associated with the genre of music known as rock. This is not a genre I am familiar with, so I cannot say whether this particular song about the death of young dreams belongs to it, but I can say that I think the lyrics, even without Bruce to belt them out, make an effective poem – a bit roughhewn maybe, but poignantly sincere. Evidently Bruce wrote it following conversations he had with his brother-in-law, after the latter lost his job and went through hard times trying to provide his family.

The River

I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

Bruce Springsteen

Week 400: The Collar-bone of a Hare, by W.B.Yeats

This may seem a strange little poem, though memorable by virtue of being suffused with the inimitable Yeats music. What’s all this about making a hole in the collar-bone of a hare? I believe that here Yeats is using, or adapting, a folktale motif: there are old Highland stories in which finding a stone with a hole in it and looking through it grants the finder the ability to pierce any disguise and see things as they truly are. And I think the poem is inspired by Yeats’s longing for an older, different order of things, for the Ireland of legend or, as he puts in his preface to Lady Gregory’s ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’, for ‘that Cruachan of the enchantments that lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills’.

The Collar-bone of a Hare

Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water

The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare.


Week 399: The Bonny Earl of Moray, by Anon

This popular ballad, Child 181, probably dates from the 17th century and is based on a historical incident. James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Lord Doune) was suspected by James VI of Scotland of having been involved with the Earl of Bothwell in an attempt on the king’s life. He issued a warrant for Moray’s arrest in 1592, charging George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly, with carrying it out. Huntly had a long-standing feud with Moray and took the opportunity, rather than arrest Moray, to kill him outside Moray’s castle in Fife. According to the ballad, James felt that Huntly had exceeded his brief, though he took no action against him.

The song is incidentally famous for having given rise to the term ‘mondegreen’ for a misheard song lyric. This was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final two lines of the first verse as ‘they have slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.’ She said that she always imagined the Earl dying beside his faithful lover ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and refused to hear the real words, because they were less romantic than her misheard version.

I have often wished that there could be a comparable term based not a mishearing but on a possible misunderstanding or over-interpretation of a line that goes beyond anything intended by the poet. For example, when I first read A.E.Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ and came to the lines ‘They tolled the one bell only/Groom was there none to see’ I read it with an emphasis on the ‘see’, which gave me a shiver as I imagined an invisible figure of Death stalking beside the coffin like a bridegroom. But it seems quite possible that this conceit never entered Housman’s mind. Ah well, another one for the Elysian fields. ‘Hey, Alfred, you know that poem of yours…’

Like all ballads it is best heard with its tune: there is a good version by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Bonny Earl of Moray

Ye Hielands an ye Lowlands
O, whaur hae ye been
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And lain him on the green.

Now wae betide thee, Huntly
And whaurfor did ye sae?
I hae bade ye bring him wi ye
But forbade ye him tae slay.

He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he might hae been a king!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the ba’;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray
Was the flower amang them a’!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the gluve;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he was the Queen’s luve!

O lang will his Lady
Look owre the Castle Downe,
Ere she see the Earl o’ Moray
Come sounding through the town!


Week 398: She Moved Through The Fair, by Anon/Padraic Colum

This is in my view one of the most beautiful of all folksongs. It began life as a traditional Irish air of some antiquity, and at least the words of the last verse are traditional; the first three verses are said to have been composed by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, though again based to some extent on traditional lyrics. Colum definitely added the third verse, though, to make it clear, he said, that the bride had died before her wedding-day: this verse seems a bit redundant and is often omitted in performance.

It has been covered by countless professional folk singers, usually with an instrumental accompaniment. Yet one of the most moving versions I have ever heard was an a cappella performance by an unnamed young woman in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, part of a remembrance service for victims of the Omagh bombing, as featured in the BBC’s ‘Soul Music’ series which devotes a whole program to the song.

She Moved Through The Fair

My young love said to me, ‘My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind’
And she stepped away from me and this she did say:
‘It will not be long, love, till our wedding day’

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her move here and move there
Until she turned homeward with one star awake
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake

All of the people were saying, ‘No two ever wed,
But one had a sorrow that never was said’,
But she smiled as she passed me with her goods and her gear
And that was the last time that I saw my dear.

Last night she came to me, my young love came in,
So softly she entered her feet made no din
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say
‘It will not be long, love, ’til our wedding day’

Anon/Padraic Colum