Week 441: “What lips my lips have kissed” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I mostly find the sonnets of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950; see also week 96) rather too posed and literary for my taste, being on the whole one of that school who think that poetic diction should be ‘sort of like what you talk, only better’. But I’m not dogmatic about it, and I do think this one has an appealing plangency. Yes, it’s outrageously romantic, but if you happen to be in the mood for a bit of romantic melancholy, then this may be the poem for you.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St Vincent Millay

Week 440: I Look into my Glass, by Thomas Hardy

This week one of the great poems of old age. It makes an interesting comparison with a quatrain of W.B.Yeats on the same theme: ‘You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attention upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?’

Hardy’s poem is altogether gentler and more wistful. Yes, anger and lust may indeed be an element in those ‘throbbings of noontide’ but the predominant emotion is one of sadness and regret, coupled with a characteristic awareness of ‘life’s little ironies’ – in this case, that the frailty and general decline in vitality that comes with age should have not yet brought him any diminution of memory and desire.

Yeats’s lines achieve, as so often with Yeats, a powerful personal rhetoric, but Hardy’s come much closer to a universal human poetry.

I Look into my Glass

I look into my glass,
  And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
  My heart had shrunk as thin!’

For then, I, undistrest
  By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
  With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
  Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
  With throbbings of noontide.

Thomas Hardy

Week 439: Ty’r Ysgol, by T.H.Parry-Williams

Some Welsh poetry can seem a bit strained, as can of course some English poetry, but this sonnet by T.H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975; see also week 284) has a very natural feel to it. In it he describes how, perhaps against all reason, he still keeps on his parents’ house, the schoolhouse in the village of Rhyd-Ddu in Caernarfonshire, long after the death of those parents.

It’s a poem that makes me feel slightly guilty. Before she died I took my sister on a drive to see the bungalow we had grown up in, but we wouldn’t have recognised the place: garage at the side, new porch, new windows, the front garden paved over, the trees at the back cut down. I remembered my father entertaining the rather unrealistic hope that one day after his death one of his children would live there. ‘Dad, let’s face it, it’s not exactly a stately home’. I should have been kinder: coming from a poor background, to own his own home had been the great dream of his life. And maybe, with its damp walls and worm-eaten furniture, my parents’ 1920s bungalow may have had more in common with a stately home than I thought. This poem is about an attempt to keep the past unchanged, in a spirit of more deference to the dead than I am afraid my siblings and I could manage.

The translation that follows is my own.

Ty’r Ysgol

Mae’r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes,
A rhywun yno weithiau’n‘sgubo’r llawr
Ac agor y ffenestri, er nad oes
Neb yno’n byw ar ôl y chwalfa fawr;
Dim ond am fis o wyliau, mwy neu lai,
Yn Awst, er mwyn cael seibiant bach o’r dre
A throi o gwmpas dipyn, nes bod rhai
Yn synnu’n gweld yn symud hyd y lle;
A phawb yn holi beth sy’n peri o hyd
I ni, sydd wedi colli tad a mam,
Gadw’r hen le, a ninnau hyd y byd,-
Ond felly y mae-hi, ac ni wn pam,
Onid rhag ofn i’r ddau sydd yn y gro
Synhwyro rywsut fod y drws ynghlo.

T.H. Parry-Willliams

Schoolhouse

The chimneys smoke in spite of adverse winds,
And someone now and then will sweep the floor
And open windows, although no one since
The great dispersal lives there any more;
Only in August, for a month or so,
We come back for a break from life in town,
And stroll about, till those who see us stare
As in surprise that we should still come down,
Wondering what brings us back, and why
We who lost both our parents long ago
Should keep the old place on, a world away,
But so it is, and why I do not know,
Unless for fear those dead ones should at last
Sense somehow that the door is now shut fast.

Week 438: ‘Tarry, delight’ by A.E.Housman

Another of those lapidary Housman poems that I find slip so easily into the memory. In case anyone has forgotten the story, the youth Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and would swim across the Hellespont every night to spend time with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

I particularly associate this poem with the early days of my marriage, when for the first seven weeks I had to live away on a residential training course, just coming home on a Friday evening and going back Sunday night. I remember quoting its lines to my wife one Sunday as I prepared to depart. She, who has always felt that self-dramatization in poets is not a tendency to be encouraged, suggested that a fifteen mile bike ride on a pleasant autumn evening was not quite the equivalent of swimming the Hellespont at night. I suppose she had a point.

Poem XV (from ‘More Poems’)

Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.

By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.

A.E.Housman

Week 437: From ‘Waterlog’, by Roger Deakin

Looking back over the years I seem to have been very diffident about expressing my enthusiasm for other writers’ work by actually writing to tell them of it, having sent a mere five such missives in sixty years. I don’t know why this should be – I imagine most authors quite like getting fan letters. I know I do, though admittedly at the rate of about one per year the volume in my case has not been such as to prove unduly burdensome. And on the occasions I have nerved myself, I have always received a perfectly courteous response – back in the early sixties J.R.R.Tolkien, for example, sent his young fan a charming handwritten reply which a few years ago raised £400 for a children’s charity. The last such letter I sent was to the nature-writer Roger Deakin (1943-2006), having fallen in love with his delightful book ‘Waterlog’, which is quite unlike anything else I have ever read: basically an account of his wild swimming adventures in rivers, lakes, seas and waterholes the length and breadth of the British Isles, yet also much more than that: a kind of sensual paean to nature studded with fascinating facts, anecdotes and literary asides. I’ve never been much inclined to follow Roger’s more extreme natatory feats – certainly I remember with great pleasure a swim in a Norwegian fjord after a long hot day’s walk, and a dip in an alder-fringed pool coming back down from a summer scramble up Cader Idris, but the idea of an early season plunge like Roger’s into some freezing wind-whipped mountain tarn is less appealing. But here is Roger in the hills above Porthmadog in Wales.

‘Water was gushing and surging up through a moraine of massive boulders, then sliding down a forty-five degree slab of rock, black where it was wet and purple where it was dry. Lying back against the sloping rock I let the water flood over me, then swam against the current in a substantial pool lower down. Water rushed about everywhere, and amongst the remains of a settlement I found a spring inside a kind of stone temple covered in ferns. I went down to drink from it, and felt its atmosphere and power.

……..

‘I climbed into the river where it ran on through a miniature ravine full of the bright, rich pinks of heather, bracken, stonecrop, thyme, gorse and the little yellow tormentil. I followed it through a ladder of waterfalls and pool, some of them deep enough to swim, interspersed with straight, high-speed runs between great slabs of rock. Here and there the stream would bend sharply to the left or right  and the water would climb up the rock wall and spout into thin air like an eel standing on its tail. Then it merged with another stream, running down an almost parallel ravine, and I slid, scrambled, waded, swam, plunged and surfed through it all until I was delivered into a deep, circling pool. A little further on, a solitary sycamore stood sentinel over a sheep-nibbled lawn of buttercups and daisies by a waterfall and another pool, long and deep, between black slabs of rock, where I swam against the stream and hovered in the clear black water. Here I made my camp, hanging my towel to dry in the sycamore branches. I made delicious tea with the river water, devoured bread, goats’ cheese and pennywort leaves, and fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the song of the waterfall, of Minnehaha, Laughing Water, the bride of Hiawatha, watched over by the dark shapes of menhirs on the hilltops.’

Roger Deakin

Week 436: Iris by Night, by Robert Frost

There are innumerable poems of love, not so many of friendship, and I think that this one, with its perfect closing image, is among the best of them. In the summer of 1914 a group of poets gathered around Dymock in the Gloucestershire countryside, among them being Robert Frost, newly arrived from America, and Edward Thomas, then known only as a reviewer and a writer of prose. Frost and Thomas took many walks together, discussing poetry, and it is these as much as anything that seem to have catalysed Thomas’s wonderful late flowering as a poet. We can date the walk described in this poem precisely, to August 6th, 1914, a night of full moon.

‘From all division time or foe can bring’ – yes, in the platonic realm of poetry, but one has to wonder: would that friendship would have lasted so well in practice, if Thomas had survived? It is tempting to believe so, but I have doubts. Frost went back to the States after the outbreak of war, and proved an unsatisfactory correspondent by letter. There was also the fact that he did not get on well with Edward’s wife Helen, who found him bossy and given to offensive remarks; indeed they later had quite a falling out over Helen’s accounts of her marriage in the two volumes ‘As It Was’ and ‘World Without End’ (lately republished in one volume entitled ‘Under Storm’s Wing’), which Frost felt portrayed his friend in too unmanly a light. I can see his point in a way, yet I have always found those accounts interesting and in places very moving.

No, that summer was the golden time of their friendship, and as Frost observes in another fine poem (see week 134), ‘nothing gold can stay’.

Iris by Night

One misty evening, one another’s guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

Robert Frost

Week 435: The Death of Robin Hood, by Anon

I have always found the mediaeval ballads of Robin Hood rather disappointing, with nothing like the quality of the best border ballads. It is a bit of a tragedy that our great rich-robbing redistributive national hero has never been given quite the literary apotheosis he deserves. Yes, there has been a cameo appearance in Sir Walter Scott, and another rather engaging one in T.H.White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (‘stop leaning on your bow with that look of negligent woodcraft’), and see also G.K.Chesterton’s fine effort in week 37, but it’s not enough, nor do any of the innumerable film versions really capture the myth – Errol Flynn too debonair, Russell Crowe too stolid, Kevin Costner too Kevin Costner, while a TV series some years back actually had me rooting for Richard Armitage’s Sheriff of Nottingham instead of for Robin. How one wishes one could go back in time to a certain playwright. ‘Look, Will, forget this faffing about with fairies in a wood near Athens, you’ve got the chance to do something with a real English hero in a proper English forest – don’t blow it!’. Ah well, perhaps in some parallel universe a fully realised Robin Hood is stalking the boards nightly and declaiming magnificent soliloquies against a background of brooding oak-trees; meanwhile I think that this one, which is Child ballad 120, is about the best of an unsatisfactory bunch. I give the version (sadly a bit damaged) found in the Bishop Percy folio; there is a later, more complete but to my mind inferior version.

The Death of Robin Hood

‘I will never eat nor drinke,’ Robin Hood said,
‘Nor meat will do me no good,
Till I have been at merry Churchlees,               Kirklees
My veins for to let blood.’

‘That I read not,’ said Will Scarlet,                   read=counsel
‘Master, by the assent of me,
Without half a hundred of your best bowmen
You take to go with ye.

‘For there a good yeoman doth abide
Will be sure to quarrel with thee,
And if thou have need of us, master,
In faith we will not flee.’

‘And thou be feard, thou William Scarlet,        and=if
At home I read thee be:’
‘And you be wroth, my dear master,
You shall never hear more of me.’

‘For there shall no man with me go,
Nor man with me ryde,
And Little John shall be my man,
And bear my benbow by my side.’                    good bow

‘You’st bear your bow, master, your self,          You should
And shoot for a peny with me:’
‘To that I do assent,’ Robin Hood said,
‘And so, John, let it be.’

They two bold children shotten together,
All day their self in rank,
Until they came to black water,
And over it laid a plank.

Upon it there kneeled an old woman,
Was banning Robin Hoode;                             cursing
‘Why dost thou bann Robin Hood?’ said Robin,
. . . .
[Nine stanzas missing; contents unknown. This ‘washer at the ford’ prophesying death is a very old idea, though, that crops up in the Irish saga telling of the death of Cuchulain.]
. . . . .
‘To give to Robin Hoode;
We weepen for his dear body,
That this day must be let blood.’

‘The Dame Prior is my aunt’s daughter,
And nigh unto my kin;
I know she would me no harm this day,
For all the world to win.’

Forth then shotten these children two,
And they did never lin,                                     tire, give up
Until they came to merry Churchless,
To merry Churchlee[s] with-in.

And when they came to merry Churchlees,
They knocked upon a pin;
Up then rose Dame Prioresse,
And let good Robin in.

Then Robin gave to Dame Prioresse
Twenty pound in gold,
And bade her spend while that would last,
And she should have more when she would.

And down then came Dame Prioresse,
Down she came in that ilke,
With a pair off blood-irons in her hands,
Were wrapped all in silk.

‘Set a chaffing-dish to the fire,’ said Dame Prioresse,
And strip thou up thy sleeve:’
I hold him but an unwise man
That will no warning leeve.                              believe

She laid the blood-irons to Robin Hood’s vein,
Alack, the more pity!
And pierced the vein, and let out the blood,
That full red was to see.

And first it bled, the thick, thick bloode,
And afterwards the thin,
And well then wist good Robin Hood              knew
Treason there was within.

‘What cheer my master?’ said Little John;
‘In faith, John, little good
. . . .
[Again nine stanzas are missing; content unknown. Robin is evidently set upon by an enemy called Red Roger.]

‘I have upon a gown of green,
Is cut short by my knee,
And in my hand a bright brown brand
That will well bite of thee.’

But forth then of a shot-window                      window that opens
Good Robin Hood he could glide;
Red Roger, with a grounden glave,                   sharp sword
Thrust him through the milk-white side.

But Robin was light and nimble of foot,
And thought to abate his pride,
For betwixt his head and his shoulders
He made a wound full wide.

Says, ‘Lie there, lie there, Red Roger,
The dogs they must thee eat;
For I may have my housle,’ he said,                  Eucharist
‘For I may both go and speak.

‘Now give me mood,’ Robin said to Little John,
‘Give me mood with thy hand;                         burial
I trust to God in heaven so high
My housle will me bestand.’                             avail

‘Now give me leave, give me leave, master,’ he said,
‘For Christ’s love give leave to me,
To set a fire within this hall,
And to burn up all Churchlee.’

‘That I read not,’ said Robin Hood then,          counsel
‘Little John, for it may not be;
If I should do any widow hurt, at my latter end,
God,’ he said,’ would blame me;

‘But take me upon thy back, Little John,
And bear me to yonder street,
And there make me full fair grave,
Of gravel and of grete.                                     stones

‘And set my bright sword at my head,
Mine arrows at my feet.
And lay my yew-bow by my side,
My met-yard wi . . .

[The last few lines are missing.]

Week 434: At The Funeral, by David Sutton

My elder sister died last month, just another Covid statistic, and had her funeral this week. She had no wish to die, but had at least been quite looking forward to her funeral, with a church full of mourners, lots of hymns and a good party to follow. Alas, she got twenty minutes in a crematorium with a mere handful of masked and socially distanced attendees who had nowhere to go afterwards but home. What a regimented society we have of necessity become. I begin to wonder if even my own simple instructions regarding the disposal of my remains, involving a Viking longship, some barrels of tar and an archer on a headland with a flaming arrow, might not fall foul of some regulation or other…

This poem was written some years back, when I was beginning to witness the departure of my parents’ generation, and things could still be done with a little style.

At The Funeral

Funerals of the old are for the old:
The young, even the middle-aged, intrude,
Stiff in their unpractised piety,
Distracted by oak poppyheads, by light
From stained glass windows blue as irises.
There may be grief, but they are grateful too
To simplifying death that has unpicked
This knot of care from their much-tangled lives.
It is the old that mourn without alloy,
That shoulder loss and lay it to its rest.

Who are they though, so lusty at the back
With lifted voice, needing no book of hymns,
The sad spruce women and the grey-haired men?
What is it that they stare at past the air?
Outside, in winter sunlight, all’s revealed:
The cousins of her youth, friends, neighbours, come
To honour old acquaintanceship; now lives
Like long-divided rivers meet again,
A swirling confluence of memory
Carries the dead one to the final sea.

How gently they exclude one. ‘That would be
Before your time.’   ‘That’s going back a bit.’
But always to such time they do go back:
To rationing, the Blitz, heroic toil,
The fields of childhood, legendary snows,
Shops, terraces long gone. I understand:
Each dying nerves a new resistance, firms
A final bond of shared exclusiveness.
This is a closing ranks: like pioneers
They man the dwindling circle of their days.

The January sunlight has turned cold.
The ceremony’s over. They depart
Down unsafe streets to doors they must keep locked.
What they came to do is done: somewhere
A girl they knew is running over grass
In a green country, leaving them behind
To counters and containments, ritual
And stoic unsurprise, such as they use
Whose lives have fed on long adversity,
Who know betrayal, and will not betray.

David Sutton

Week 433: Partial Comfort, by Dorothy Parker

A bit of light relief this week in the shape of a quatrain by American wit Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), who specialised in four-line squibs which may not be great poetry but are kind of neat. Though I have to say that in my book neither John Knox nor Helen of Troy seem likely to make good dinner guests: Knox would no doubt be off on some Calvinist rant while Helen would spend the time checking her Twitter feed at #thousandships. Be that as it may….

Partial Comfort

Whose love is given over-well
Shall look on Helen’s face in hell,
Whilst those whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in Paradise.

And as a follow-up bonus this week here is an extract from the mediaeval French chantefable ‘Aucassin et Nicolette’. A chantefable is a story told in a mixture of prose and verse, and this one is a sort of irreverent pastiche of the chivalric romances popular at the time. Here the hero, required to choose between salvation and the woman he loves, expresses much the same sentiment as Dorothy.

Captain: “Nay more, what wouldst thou deem thee to have gained, hadst thou made her thy leman, and taken her to thy bed?  Plentiful lack of comfort hadst thou got thereby, for in Hell would thy soul have lain while the world endures, and into Paradise wouldst thou have entered never.”

Aucassin: “In Paradise what have I to win?  Therein I seek not to enter, but only to have Nicolete, my sweet lady that I love so well.  For into Paradise go none but such folk as I shall tell thee now: Thither go these same old priests, and halt old men and maimed, who all day and night cower continually before the altars, and in the crypts; and such folk as wear old amices and old clouted frocks, and naked folk and shoeless, and covered with sores, perishing of hunger and thirst, and of cold, and of little ease.  These be they that go into Paradise, with them have I naught to make.  But into Hell would I fain go; for into Hell fare the goodly clerks, and goodly knights that fall in tourneys and great wars, and stout men at arms, and all men noble.  With these would I liefly go. And thither pass the sweet ladies and courteous that have two lovers, or three, and their lords also thereto.  Thither goes the gold, and the silver, and cloth of vair, and cloth of gris, and harpers, and makers, and the prince of this world.  With these I would gladly go, let me but have with me, Nicolete, my sweetest lady.”

From ‘Aucassin and Nicolette’, translated by Andrew Lang

Week 432: Stare’s Nest At My Window, by W.B.Yeats

I think this is one of Yeats’s greatest poems, and that rare thing, an entirely successful political poem. It forms part of a sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, referring to the Irish civil war in 1922, the effects of which Yeats saw at first hand as it swirled around his tower at Thoor Ballylee. But I am not at all sure I am reading it with a perfect understanding of its symbolism. What, you may ask, have bees building in a wall and a starling’s nest outside his window (‘stare’ is a dialect word for starling) got to do with anything? My reading would be that Yeats, disillusioned with political ideology, is turning to the natural world as a refuge, invoking its uninvolved continuities and consoling himself that these will go on whatever human beings make of the world. The fantasies of the fifth stanza I take to be the fantasies of Irish nationalism, of the heroic and romantic past embodied in such figures as Cuchulain, and of the glorious slaughters of Irish epic that contrast so strongly with the real violence of ‘that dead young soldier in his blood’. The phrase ‘My wall is loosening’ would be an image of the poet’s sense that the certainties he once had are now crumbling, with now ‘no clear fact to be discerned’. That much seems clear, yet I still feel that there is a level of specificity about the imagery here, of bees, grubs, flies and empty house, that may be eluding me. Well, it is the mark of a good poem that it not only makes us think, but keeps us thinking.

Stare’s Nest At My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

W.B.Yeats