Week 259: Winter Nightfall, by Robert Bridges

Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930) was a Grand Old Man of English letters in the early twentieth century – indeed, he was Poet Laureate from 1913 to 1930 – and his work was still to be found in the Georgian anthologies that dominated the schoolroom when I was young. I would guess that he is little read now, though I seem to remember Yvor Winters, an American critic notable for the independence of his judgments, being an advocate of his work. I think this poem makes an interesting comparison with Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ (see week 14). Bridges’ is a perfectly competent poem: it has form, it has atmosphere, it has compassion, but to my mind Frost’s is by some way the better piece: it just seems more urgent, more alive, and as so often with a Frost poem there is a wildness prowling at its edges which Bridges’ neat rhymes and slightly mechanical rhythms fence out. Just my opinion – see what you think. 

Winter Nightfall

The day begins to droop,–
Its course is done:
But nothing tells the place
Of the setting sun.

The hazy darkness deepens,
And up the lane
You may hear, but cannot see,
The homing wain.

An engine pants and hums
In the farm hard by:
Its lowering smoke is lost
In the lowering sky.

The soaking branches drip,
And all night through
The dropping will not cease
In the avenue.

A tall man there in the house
Must keep his chair:
He knows he will never again
Breathe the spring air:

His heart is worn with work;
He is giddy and sick
If he rise to go as far
As the nearest rick:

He thinks of his morn of life,
His hale, strong years;
And braves as he may the night
Of darkness and tears.

Robert Bridges

 

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Week 258: Song, by Alun Lewis

This is one of several poems of wartime separation and loss written by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (1915-1944), this one being unusual in that it is written from the woman’s point of view. The historical context is of course the Second World War but its message of grief is universal, and when I visited the beautiful Falklands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne, not far from where I live, it was this poem that came strongly to my mind: there were enough in that conflict too who never came home again to wives or sweethearts.

Song
(On seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick.

The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there
And my heart was sick with care.

The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.

And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’

The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.

We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.

But oh, the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.

Alun Lewis

Week 257: The Turnstile, by William Barnes

The previous William Barnes poems I have featured, ‘Woak Hill’ and ‘The Wife A-Lost’, were clearly autobiographical, relating to the loss of his beloved wife Julia; I don’t know whether this one also is – I can’t find out anything about Barnes having lost a son – or whether it is merely empathetic of another’s distress. Whatever the case, it shows again his gift for the homely yet poignant elegy. I feel that Barnes, while enjoying the affection and admiration of many fellow poets including Hardy, Auden and Larkin, has nonetheless been a bit sidelined over the years. Some of this may be down to his use of dialect, but more of it, perhaps, to a tendency among the public to feel that poets should, like Lord Byron, be mad, bad and dangerous to know, or that at the very least they should have the good grace to die young. Barnes was sane, good and quite safe to know, and he lived to be eighty-five.

Note: I think any difficulties with the spelling largely disappear if you read the poem aloud, but for anyone having difficulty I append a version with the spelling standardised.

The Turnstile

Ah! sad wer we as we did peäce
the wold church road, wi’ downcast feäce,
the while the bells, that mwoaned so deep
above our child a-left asleep,
wer now a-zingen all alive
wi’ t’other bells to meäke the vive.
But up at woone pleäce we come by,
t’wer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry
On Steän-cliff road, ’ithin the drong,
Up where as v’ok do pass along,
The turnen stile, a-painted white,
Do sheen by day an’ show by night.
Vor always there, as we did goo
To church, thik stile did let us drough,
Wi’ spreaden earms that wheel’d to guide
Us each in turn to tother zide.
An’ vu’st ov all the train he took
My wife, wi’ winsome gait an’ look;
An’ then zent on my little maid,
A-skippen onward, overjaÿ’d
To reach ageän the pleäce o’pride,
Her comely mother’s left han’ zide.
An’ then, a-wheelen roun’, he took
On me, ’ithin his third white nook.
An’ in the fourth, a sheäken wild,
He zent us on our giddy child.
But eesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full o’ woe,
An’ then my little maid in black,
A-walken softly on her track;
An’ after he’d a turn’d ageän,
To let me goo along the leäne,
He had noo little buoy to vill
His last white eärms, an they stood still.

William Barnes

…. and in standardised spelling:

The Turnstile

Ah! sad were we as we did pace
the old church road, with downcast face,
while the bells, that moaned so deep
above our child we’d left asleep,
were now a-singing all alive
with other bells to make the five.
But at one place as we came by,
‘twas hard to keep one’s two eyes dry.
On Stone-cliff road, within the throng,
Up where the people pass along,
The turning stile, a-painted white,
Does shine by day and show by night.
For always there, as we did go
To church, this stile did let us through,
With spreading arms that wheeled to guide
Us each in turn to t’other side.
And first of all the train he took
My wife, with winsome gait and look;
And then sent on my little maid,
A-skipping onward, overjoyed
To reach again the place of pride,
Her comely mother’s left hand side.
And then, a-wheeling round, he took
On me, within his third white nook.
And in the fourth, a-shaking wild,
He sent us on our giddy child.
But yesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full of woe,
And then my little maid in black,
A-walking softly on her track;
And after he had turned again,
To let me go along the lane,
He had no little boy to fill
His last white arms, and they stood still.

William Barnes

Week 256: At The Fishhouses, by Elizabeth Bishop

I can’t quite figure out how Elizabeth Bishop does it. On the face of it this is a rambling, unstructured piece, relaxed almost to the point of looseness, that shouldn’t really work, and yet I find it intensely pleasurable. Maybe the secret is Bishop’s own pleasure in the physicality of things, their hues and shapes and textures, coupled with a kind of wayward fidelity to the actual. At one point a seal makes an appearance and Bishop recounts how she used to sing hymns to it. ‘Aha’, the suspicious literary mind will say, ‘what’s that about then?’. I’m not sure it’s about anything, other than that relish of hers for the random quirks of reality. And yet the poem does build, slowly and subtly, to a kind of epiphany, with its extraordinarily sensuous vision of water towards the end, and you realise that it is after all about something specific, about knowledge, and more particularly about the kind of knowledge that is at the heart of true poetry: primary knowledge, unmediated, based on the poet’s own experience and observation, and infused with that loving delight in sheer existence that her preceding lines exemplify so well. And yet, in the closing lines, all this seems to be tempered by a wistful recognition that this knowledge is not our true element, or at least, that its painful exhilaration is not one we can endure for long: that we can do no more than dip a hand into that cold clear stream as it passes, its source and destination both equally apart from us and beyond us.

At the fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Elizabeth Bishop

Week 255: Passing The Graveyard, by Andrew Young

A characteristically neat and reflective piece from Scots poet and clergyman Andrew Young (1885-1971), which turns on the question of what exactly it is that constitutes our personal identity and sense of self; an interesting one even if those of us not blessed with a religious faith may feel that whatever it is, the chances of it surviving our physical demise in any form are pretty slim.

Passing The Graveyard

I see you did not try to save
The bouquet of white flowers I gave;
So fast they wither on your grave.

Why does it hurt the heart to think
Of that most bitter abrupt brink
Where the low-shouldered coffins sink?

These living bodies that we wear
So change by every seventh year
That in a new dress we appear.

Limbs, spongy brain and slogging heart,
No part remains the selfsame part;
Like streams they stay and still depart.

You slipped slow bodies in the past;
Then why should we be so aghast
You flung off the whole flesh at last?

Let him who loves you think instead
That like a woman who has wed
You undressed first and went to bed.

Andrew Young

Week 254: The Death of Osgar, by Lady Gregory

One of the problems we have in relating to the poetry of the past is the fact that so much of it is concerned with celebrating the violent deeds of martial men. Indeed, it was pretty much part of  a poet’s contract that he should do this. ‘Beird byt barnant wyr o gallon’, says the old Welsh poem ‘Y Gododin’, ‘the poets of the world judge the men of valour’. I guess that this ethos suffered badly in the slaughter of the Great War and finally expired at Hiroshima, and it would be an unusual poet now who felt able to celebrate unreservedly the exploits of some latterday Achilles or Cuchulain.

Yet the old heroic tales can still exert a pull, and if we accept that the past was another country, yet still want to understand it, passages like the following, from Lady Gregory’s rendering of Irish myth and saga, ‘Gods and Fighting Men’, may help us to do so. The Fianna have just fought their last battle, and the young Osgar, Finn’s grandson, lies mortally wounded. This hard unlovely man, with his stoical pride and his desire to die in battle rather than suffer what the Vikings called a ‘straw death’, seems to distil for us the whole eternal warrior’s creed.

The Death of Osgar

And after a while, at noonday, they saw Finn coming towards them, and what was left of the Sun-banner raised on a spear-shaft. And all of them saluted Finn, but he made no answer, and he came up to the hill where Osgar was. And when Osgar saw him coming he saluted him, and he said: ‘I have got my desire in death, Finn of the sharp arms’. And Finn said: ‘It is worse the way you were, my son, on the day of the battle at Beinn Edair when the wild geese could swim on your breast, and it was my hand that gave you healing’. ‘There can be no healing done for me now for ever’, said Osgar, ‘since the King of Ireland put the spear of seven spells through my body’. And Finn said: ‘It is a pity it was not I myself fell in sunny scarce Gabhra, and you going east and west at the head of the Fianna’. ‘And if it was yourself fell in the battle’, said Osgar, ‘you would not hear me keening after you; for no man ever knew any heart in me’, he said, ‘but a heart of twisted horn, and it covered with iron. But the howling of the dogs beside me’, he said, ‘and the keening of the old fighting men, and the crying of the women one after another, those are the thing that are vexing me’. And Finn said: ‘Child of my child, calf of my calf, white and slender, it is a pity the way you are. And my heart is starting like a deer’, he said, ‘and I am weak after you and after the Fianna of Ireland. And misfortune has followed us’, he said, ‘and farewell now to battles and a great name, and farewell to taking tributes; for every good thing I ever had is gone from me now’, he said.

And when Osgar heard those words he stretched out his hands, and his eyelids closed. And Finn turned away from the rest, and he cried tears down; and he never shed a tear through the whole length of his lifetime but only for Osgar and Bran.

And all that was left of the Fianna gave three sorrowful cries after Osgar, for there was not one of the Fianna beyond him, unless it might be Finn or Oisin.

And it is many of the Fianna were left dead in Gabhra, and graves were made for them. And as to Lugaidh’s Son, that was so tall a man and so good a fighter, they made a very wide grave for him, as was fitting for a king. And the whole length of the rath at Gabhra, from end to end, it is that was the grave of Osgar, son of Oisin, son of Finn.

Note: Bran was Finn’s favourite hound.

Week 253: The Ruined Maid, by Thomas Hardy

To those who think of Thomas Hardy as predominantly a purveyor of doom and gloom, it may come as a surprise to find that he could also be rather funny, as in this encounter between a working girl who has stayed on the farm and a friend who has chosen a somewhat different path in life. Of course, it is possible to read the poem in a morally earnest way: to wonder if Amelia is not whistling in the dark, as it were, and whether the life of a ‘ruined maid’ back then was really that much fun or if it was not simply exchanging one kind of servitude for another, less honest one. It would certainly be typical of Hardy to present the choices of human existence in such a lose-lose way, but I think that really he was just getting a bit of his own back by poking fun at the moral conventions of his times that had led to so much censure of his work.

The Ruined Maid

‘O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?’ —
‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she.

— ‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ —
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

— ‘At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!’ —
‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,’ said she.

— ‘Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!’ —
‘We never do work when we’re ruined,’ said she.

— ‘You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!’ —
‘True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,’ said she.

— ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’ —
‘My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.

Thomas Hardy