Week 464: The Dover Bitch, by Anthony Hecht

I feel that there must be a single word term for this kind of irreverent gloss or counter-poem, but for the moment I can’t bring one to mind. You cannot, I think, call it a parody. A good parody works by close imitation, so close that you could almost think you were reading an original work by the target author, just giving the game away by the subtlest of exaggerations, the most innocent-looking of stumbles. Think, for example, of Henry Reed’s parody of T.S.Eliot, ‘Chard Whitlow’, of Chesterton’s versions of Yeats and Whitman, of Max Beerbohm’s take-offs of Henry James and Arnold Bennett, of Hugh Kingsmill’s A.E.Housman.

In contrast, Hecht’s poem is in tone and style nothing like Matthew Arnold’s celebrated Victorian poem ‘Dover Beach’, about the ebbing tide of faith and the loss of the old certainties. It is not even clear to me whether Hecht dislikes Arnold’s poem and finds in it a pomposity that needs puncturing, or whether he feels that high-mindedness is all very well but sometimes a bit of low-mindedness doesn’t come amiss either, or whether he is just having a bit of fun. In any event, I do find the poem good fun, and of course Arnold’s original remains a powerful piece well able to take the hit and sail on.

The Dover Bitch

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London , and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

Anthony Hecht

Week 463: Under The Waterfall, by Thomas Hardy

Bit of an odd one this week. On the face of it this is a rather decorous, even slightly naïve poem about two Victorian lovers enjoying a picnic by a waterfall, yet it portrays the event with a sensuous precision that borders on the erotic, and while the last thing I would want to do is get all Freudian about a beautiful poem, I can’t help wondering if Hardy, with a knowing twinkle in his not-so-innocent Victorian eye, was not well aware of certain symbolic possibilities in the poem. This is after all the man who in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ gives us such a dazzling account of Sergeant Troy’s swordplay in ‘the hollow amid the ferns’. But never mind all that: as always with Hardy, any other theme is subordinate to the passage of time, the transience of human happiness and the bittersweetness of memory.

Under the Waterfall

‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
      Hence the only prime
      And real love-rhyme
      That I know by heart,
      And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’

‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though where precisely none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
      Is a drinking-glass:
      For, down that pass
      My lover and I
      Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
On the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass both used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’

Thomas Hardy

Week 462: The Burial of the Old, by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (1934-) is an American poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and environmental activist. I admire this poem for its terse unsentimental serenity, even if it does appear to take a rather brisk attitude towards the dying of the aged. I sat with my father in his last hours, wanting to say to him those things it is so difficult to utter in normal times, but he never came round from the operation, so all went unsaid, and whether the light became again the sky for him I cannot say. But the third verse certainly rings true: when I left the hospital it seemed an extraordinary thing to walk in sunlight and for days afterwards I felt charged with an almost lacerating sensitivity to my own aliveness.

The Burial of the Old

The old, whose bodies encrust their lives,
Die, and that is well.
They unhinder what has struggled in them,

The light, painfully loved, that narrowed
And darkened in their minds
Becomes again the sky.

The young, who have looked on dying,
Turn back to the world, grown strangely
Alert to each other’s bodies.

Wendell Berry

Week 461: ‘Here comes Sir George’, by Jon Stallworthy

I imagine that many may find the rather Kiplingesque sentiment of this poem challenging in these post-colonial times when the whole concept of empire has long been called into question. I do myself, but I think that we should, within reason, always be prepared to listen to an unfashionable viewpoint, rather than simply denying a speaker the right to hold it, and should try to be open to the possibilities of nuance, the nuance in this case being that some servants of the British Empire may have done their best to carry out their roles in a humane and beneficial way, even if the existence of those roles in the first place may be contentious.

I suppose the fact is that morality and poetry have always been imperfect bedfellows, but cohabit they must. I cannot see, for example, how a poem that extolled the virtues of cruelty or celebrated the Holocaust could be other than detestable, however technically accomplished. Yet at the same time it would be a pity to have a generation of poets grow up thinking that poetry is simply a matter of saying right things, and forgetting that it is also a matter of saying things right.

‘Here comes Sir George’

The boys wink at the boys: ‘Here comes Sir George.’
Yes, here he comes, punctual as nine o’clock
with bad jokes buzzing at his ramrod back –
‘Victoria’s Uncle,’ ‘Rearguard of the Raj’.

They do not know or, if they know, forget
the old fool held a province down larger
than England; not as a Maharaja
prodigal with silver and bayonet;

but with cool sense, authority and charm
that still attend him, crossing a room
with The Odes of Horace under his arm
and in his button-hole a fresh-cut bloom.

Honour the rearguard, you half-men, for it
was, in retreat, the post of honour. He –
last of The Titans – is worth your study.
You are not worth the unsheathing of his wit.

Jon Stallworthy

Week 460: Hommage à la Vie, by Jules Supervielle

This week one of my favourite French poems, in which the ageing poet looks back over his life, in language that is simple yet idiosyncratic, lucid yet profound.

The translation that follows is my own. I offer it merely as a crib – I decided that any attempt to force a match with Supervielle’s rhyme scheme would sacrifice too much of the original’s simplicity, or at least must wait for a better talent than mine.

Hommage à la vie

C’est beau d’avoir élu
Domicile vivant
Et de loger le temps
Dans un cœur continu,
Et d’avoir vu ses mains
Se poser sur le monde
Comme sur une pomme
Dans un petit jardin,
 
D’avoir aimé la terre,
La lune et le soleil
Comme des familiers
Qui n’ont pas leurs pareils,
Et d’avoir confié
Le monde à sa mémoire
Comme un clair cavalier
À sa monture noire,
 
D’avoir donné visage
À ces mots: femme, enfants,
Et servi de rivage
À d’errants continents,
Et d’avoir atteint l’âme
À petits coups de rame
Pour ne l’effaroucher
D’une brusque approchée.
 
C’est beau d’avoir connu
L’ombre sous le feuillage
Et d’avoir senti l’âge
Ramper sur le corps nu,
Accompagné la peine
Du sang noir dans les veines
Et doré son silence
De l’étoile Patience,
 
Et d’avoir tous ces mots
Qui bougent dans la tête
De choisir les moins beaux
Pour leur faire un peu fête,
D’avoir senti la vie
Hâtive et mal aimée
De l’avoir enfermée
Dans cette poésie.

Jules Supervielle

Homage to Life

A fine thing, to have lived
In a house of flesh,
And given time a home
In a steadfast heart,
To have looked on as one’s hands
Take hold of the world
Cupping it like an apple
In a little garden,

A fine thing, to have loved
The earth, the moon and sun
As familiar friends
Whose like you have not known,
And to have entrusted
The world to memory
Like a bright cavalier
Riding his black steed,

To have given a human face
To these words: children, wife,
And to have served as shore
To wandering continents,
To have come upon the soul
With small strokes of the oars
Lest it be scared away
By an approach too brusque.

A fine thing, to have known
The shade beneath the boughs
And to have felt old age
Creep on the naked body,
Kept company with pain
Like black blood in the veins
And to have gilded silence
With the star, Patience.

And to have all these words
Bustling in one’s head,
To choose the least beautiful
To let them live a little,
To have felt this life
So hurried, so ill loved,
And to have secured it
In this poetry.

Week 459: The Relique, by John Donne

Some poems, like runners, set off at a cracking pace but end up limping to the finishing line. I think, for example, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet ‘The Windhover’, with its stunning evocation of a kestrel in the first eight lines followed by the disappointment of the contorted last six: ‘Oh, so it was just an excuse for a bit of religion’. And I think this poem by John Donne (1572-1631) is another example. It has a great opening stanza, passionate, direct and mordantly witty, and ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ surely has to be one of English poetry’s most memorable images. But then in the next two stanzas for me the passion and directness peter out, becoming lost in a mere play of ideas, and the poem ends with a tired conventional hyperbole. Still fluent verse, yes, but Donne, like other of the Metaphysicals, sometimes reminds me of a footballer so enamoured of his skill at dribbling the ball as to forget that the point of the game is to score goals.

The Relique

When my grave is broke up again
       Some second guest to entertain,
       (For graves have learn’d that woman head,
       To be to more than one a bed)
                And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
                Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

         If this fall in a time, or land,
         Where mis-devotion doth command,
         Then he, that digs us up, will bring
         Us to the bishop, and the king,
                To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
                A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men;
And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

         First, we lov’d well and faithfully,
         Yet knew not what we lov’d, nor why;
         Difference of sex no more we knew
         Than our guardian angels do;
                Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
                Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals
Which nature, injur’d by late law, sets free;
These miracles we did, but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

John Donne

Week 458: Scorpion, by Stevie Smith

This week another of Stevie Smith’s highly original poems, in which she masks a serious intent by adopting the persona of a garrulous and slightly nutty aunt. It is like a conjuror’s distraction technique, but watch carefully and don’t be fooled. (‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’/No, I am Scorpion.) And scorpions carry a sting in the tail…

Scorpion

‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee’
My Soul is never required of me
It always has to be somebody else of course
Will my soul be required of me tonight perhaps?

(I often wonder what it will be like
To have one’s soul required of one
But all I can think of is the Out-Patients’ Department –
‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’
No, I am Scorpion.)

I should like my soul to be required of me, so as
To waft over grass till it comes to the blue sea
I am very fond of grass, I always have been, but there must
Be no cow, person or house to be seen.

Sea and grass must be quite empty
Other souls can find somewhere else.

O Lord God please come
And require the soul of thy Scorpion

Scorpion so wishes to be gone.

Stevie Smith

Week 457: Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen, by Heinrich Heine

In response to correspondent Chris’s request last week, here is the Heine poem mentioned, with my own attempt at a translation. It’s an untitled section of a sequence in ‘Gedichte 1853-1854’, written when Heine was in failing health, a few years before his death in 1856.

Heine is a very accessible poet, but also quite tricky. He has a technique of laying on the sentiment rather too thickly, then scraping off some but not all of it with an ironic flick of his verbal trowel, and it can be hard for a non-native speaker to gauge his exact tone. In this poem, for example, in which he is constantly undercutting his own real pathos, I suspect that the verb ‘schwätzen’, with its suggestion of artless prattle, would not now be complimentary if used of a woman, and probably wasn’t then. Which need not make it less fond, of course. Though it’s fairly typical of Heine that at the same time as making these uxorious declarations he was managing in his closing years to have a love affair with a young woman. His wife Mathilde survived him, dying in 1883. 

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen
Im Paradies, im sel’gen Land;
Dort find ich keine schönre Frauen,
Als ich bereits auf Erden fand.

Kein Engel mit den feinsten Schwingen
Könnt mir ersetzen dort mein Weib;
Auf Wolken sitzend Psalmen singen,
Wär auch nicht just mein Zeitvertreib.

O Herr! ich glaub, es wär das beste,
Du ließest mich in dieser Welt;
Heil nur zuvor mein Leibgebreste,
Und sorge auch für etwas Geld.

Ich weiß, es ist voll Sünd’ und Laster
Die Welt; jedoch ich bin einmal
Gewöhnt, auf diesem Erdpechpflaster
Zu schlendern durch das Jammertal.

Genieren wird das Weltgetreibe
Mich nie, denn selten geh ich aus;
In Schlafrock und Pantoffeln bleibe
Ich gern bei meiner Frau zu Haus.

Laß mich bei ihr! Hör ich sie schwätzen,
Trinkt meine Seele die Musik
Der holden Stimme mit Ergötzen.
So treu und ehrlich ist ihr Blick!

Gesundheit nur und Geldzulage
Verlang ich, Herr! O laß mich froh
Hinleben noch viel schöne Tage
Bei meiner Frau im statu quo!

Heinrich Heine

They’re not for me, the fields divine
Of Paradise, that holy ground.
I’ll find no women there more fine
Than those on earth already found.

No angel there with splendid wing
Could take the place of my own wife;
And sitting on a cloud to sing
Is not quite my idea of life.

O Lord! I think it best for me
To let this world below suffice,
Just heal first my infirmity.
Also, some money would be nice.

It’s full of vice and sin, I know,
This world of ours, and yet the years
Have long accustomed me to go
Down mean streets through this vale of tears.

The bustle of the world around
Won’t bother one who does not roam,
Content in slippers, dressing-gowned,
To be beside his wife at home.

O let me stay to hear again
Her prattle that delights my days,
My soul drink up her sweet refrain.
So true and honest is her gaze.

Just health and money then, o Lord,
I ask, that I may live to know
The fair days time may yet afford
With my wife and the status quo!

Week 456: Family Fortunes, by C.H.Sisson

C.H.Sisson (1914-2003) worked in a modernist, imagist tradition very different from any that I would see myself as belonging to, and for the most part his values and admirations are not mine, yet there is something about his own poems, especially the ruefully elegiac later ones, that I find intriguing: a kind of cerebral music, a bittersweet scent on the page, like rosemary. Here he looks back trying to find meaning in a life and ancestry characterised by a puzzling arbitrariness of fate and fortune.

Family Fortunes
                                    1

I was born in Bristol, and it is possible
To live harshly in that city

Quiet voices possess it, but the boy
Torn from the womb, cowers

Under a ceiling of cloud. Tramcars
Crash by or enter the mind

A barred room bore him, the backyard
Smooth as a snake-skin, yielded nothing

In the fringes of the town parsley and honeysuckle
Drenched the hedges.

                                    2

My mother was born in West Kington
Where ford and bridge cross the river together

John Worlock farmed there, my grandfather
Within sight of the square church-tower

The rounded cart-horses shone like metal
My mother remembered their fine ribbons.

She lies in the north now where the hills
Are pale green, and I

Whose hand never steadied a plough
Wish I had finished my long journey.

                                    3

South of the march parts my father
Lies also, and the fell town

That cradles him now sheltered also
His first unconsciousness.

He walked from farm to farm with a kit of tools
From clock to clock, and at the end

Only they spoke to him, he
Having tuned his youth to their hammers.

                                    4

I had two sisters, one I cannot speak of
For she died a child, and the sky was blue that day

The other lived to meet blindness
Groping on the stairs, not admitting she could not see

Felled at last under a surgeon’s hammer
Then left to rot, surgically

And I have a brother who, being alive,
Does not need to be put in a poem.

C.H.Sisson

Week 455: She played the strumpet in my bed, by Freda Downie

The Reverend Thomas Bowdler was a nineteenth-century physician and literary enthusiast who took it on himself to purge Shakespeare’s plays of ‘those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’. This evidently led him to have Othello strangling Desdemona because she played the trumpet, rather than the strumpet of the original, in his bed. I suspect that this story is apocryphal and designed to poke fun at the good doctor – does anyone have a copy of Bowdler’s ‘The Family Shakespeare’ to check? – but anyway the poet Freda Downie (1929-1993) takes the idea and runs with it, having a good deal of fun herself in the process. I’m not sure that I catch all the playful subtext here, and the last four lines in particular seem a bit elusive: I take them to mean something like ‘I was afraid the unfettered exuberance of our lovemaking would attract the attention of my handsome neighbour who would then follow suit? cuckold me?, and that indeed is what happened’. Still, a poem that I find highly original and quirkily memorable.

She played the strumpet in my bed
(for Dr Bowdler)

She played the trumpet in my bed
And never failed to raise my head
Her low notes in a minor key
Were studies in intimacy
And preludes to that highest note
I urged her on to every night.

And yet, that note I feared the most.
I feared the ornaments were lost –
I feared the stars would be blown out –
I feared my neighbour roundabout
Would lift his own dark handsome head
Divining brass in my low bed.

And that is what my neighbour did.

Freda Downie