Week 346: A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

I must confess that until I came to investigate it for this posting, I had always misread this poem, assuming it to be Hardy in age recalling some encounter from his youth, before he met his first wife Emma Gifford. I saw him as reflecting on an opportunity lost, a road not taken, and wondering how differently his life and marriage might have turned out had the rain not stopped, or had he been more forward. But actually it seems that it is about a shared cab-ride in later life with his second wife-to-be Florence Dugdale, while he was still married to Emma, so my assumption of a gauche youthful innocence and a never-to-be-fulfilled desire is way off the mark. It’s still a poignant, bittersweet little poem in its way, but I rather wish I’d stayed ignorant…

A Thunderstorm in Town
(A Reminiscence)

She wore a new ‘terra-cotta’ dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom’s dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.

Thomas Hardy

Advertisements

Week 345: ‘More Light! More Light!’ by Anthony Hecht

Nothing for your cheer today, in fact this is just about the bleakest poem I know, but in a week that has seen the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings it may be appropriate to be reminded of what we should never forget, of the issues lying at the heart of that conflict that made the sacrifice of so many so necessary.

‘More Light! More Light!’

For Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
‘I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.’

Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.

And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity.

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

No light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

Anthony Hecht

Week 344: From far, from eve and morning, by A.E.Housman

Another of my favourite A.E.Housman poems, from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. When I first read it I thought the ‘twelve-winded sky’ sounded mysteriously poetic but also a little puzzling: I supposed that one could divide the compass up how one wanted, but convention seemed to require four or eight winds. But that’s just the modern convention: the Greeks and Romans did indeed see the compass in terms of twelve points, each wind being given its own name: Boreas, Zephyrus etc.. It seems very appropriate for Housman the classical scholar to hark back to that, but he also manages in this poem to neatly prefigure a modern scientific idea about the stuff of life: that the atoms that make up our bodies were forged in the heart of stars and then borne hither on some cosmic wind to be assembled before dispersing again. 

From far, from eve and morning

From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart–
Take my hand quick and tell me,
    What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

A.E.Housman

Week 343: Gold Leaves, by G.K.Chesterton

I turned 75 last Sunday, and have been casting around for something to put a positive spin on this – OK, I now get a free TV licence but otherwise compensations seem thin on the ground. But I do take some heart from this poem of old age by G.K.Chesterton, that combines serenity with a typically Chestertonian sense of how extraordinary and precious the ordinary is.

Gold Leaves

Lo! I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I am old.

In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,
Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn
When all the leaves are gold.

G.K.Chesterton

Dream Song 324 An Elegy for W. C. W., the lovely man

Another of John Berryman’s quirkily affectionate elegies for fellow American poets (see also week 120), who did seem to predecease him in depressingly large numbers, causing him to wonder in another poem, this time about Sylvia Plath, why he ‘alone breasts the wronging tide’. This one is for William Carlos Williams.

Note: Berryman in these poems used an alter ego Henry.

Dream Song 324 An Elegy for W. C. W., the lovely man

Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.

At dawn you rose & wrote–the books poured forth–
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth–
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.

Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

John Berryman

Week 341: From ‘A Masque of Mercy’, by Robert Frost

Tucked away at the end of my copy of Robert Frost’s ‘Complete Poems’ are two rather curious pieces, ‘A Masque of Reason’ and ‘A Masque of Mercy’. All credit to the man for trying something different, but I have to say that with their folksy theology they really don’t work for me: Frost towards the end of his creative life, running on empty.  And yet, just at the end of ‘A Masque of Mercy’, you do get a bit of echt Frost, that seems to stand as a credo for his often troubled mind and life, and one indeed that might have a resonance for many another poet.

Paul. Yes, there you have it at the root of things.
We have to stay afraid deep in our souls
Our sacrifice—the best we have to offer,
And not our worst nor second best, our best,
Our very best, our lives laid down like Jonah’s,
Our lives laid down in war and peace—may not
Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.
And that they may be is the only prayer
Worth praying. May my sacrifice
Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.

Keeper. Let the lost millions pray it in the dark!
My failure is no different from Jonah’s.
We both have lacked the courage in the heart
To overcome the fear within the soul
And go ahead to any accomplishment.
Courage is what it takes and takes the more of
Because the deeper fear is so eternal.
And if I say we lift him from the floor
And lay him where you ordered him to lie
Before the cross, it is from fellow-feeling,
As if I asked for one more chance myself
To learn to say (He moves to Jonah’s feet.)
Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.

Robert Frost

Week 340: Windy Gap, by David Campbell

The Australian poet David Campbell (1915-1979) had a fine lyric touch and a great zest for life, both exemplified in this celebratory piece, so imbued with the music of what happens.

Windy Gap

As I was going through Windy Gap
A hawk and a cloud hung over the map.

The land lay bare and the wind blew loud
And the hawk cried out from the heart of the cloud,

‘Before I fold my wings in sleep
I’ll pick the bones of your travelling sheep,

For the leaves blow black and the wintry sun
Shows the tree’s white skeleton’.

A magpie sat on the tree’s high top
Singing a song on Windy Gap

That streamed far down to the plain below
Like a shaft of light from a high window.

From the bending tree he sang aloud,
And the sun shone out of the heart of the cloud

And it seemed to me as we travelled through
That my sheep were the notes that trumpet blew,

And so I sing this song of praise
For travelling sheep and blowing days.

David Campbell