Week 286: From ‘Spring Nature Notes’ by Ted Hughes

I see this poem, with that wonderfully evocative last line about the brilliant silence, as relating properly to one of those first fine days in early March, but spring our way has been so late this year that it was not till last Saturday we had weather of the kind to bring this poem to mind. Now we are in the middle of a mini-heatwave and the countryside is going mad with bluebells and blossom, as if the whole dammed-up season has burst its banks and overflowed in one day.

From ‘Spring Nature Notes’

The sun lies mild and still on the yard stones.

The clue is a solitary daffodil – the first.

And the whole air struggling in soft excitements
Like a woman hurrying into her silks.
Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping
Changing their minds, in soft excitements,
Warming their voyage and trying their voices.

The trees still spindle bare.

Beyond them, from the warmed blue hills
An exhilaration swirls upward, like a huge fish.
As under the waterfall, in the bustling pool.

Over the whole land
Spring thunders down in brilliant silence.

Ted Hughes


Week 285: Flying Crooked, by Robert Graves

One of those neat idiosyncratic lyrics, slipping so effortlessly into the memory, that Robert Graves excelled at.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has – who knows so well as I? –
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessnes.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves

Week 284: Dychwelyd, by T.H. Parry-Williams

T.H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975) was one of the major figures in a great flowering of Welsh poetry in the first half of the last century, and this is one of his best-known sonnets, a popular choice for recitation at Eisteddfods.

The translation that follows is my own.


Ni all terfysgoedd daear byth gyffroi
distawrwydd nef; ni sigla lleisiau’r llawr
rymuster y tangnefedd sydd yn toi
diddim diarcholl yr ehangder mawr;
ac ni all holl drybestod dyn a byd
darfu’r tawelwch nac amharu dim
ar dreigl a thro’r pellterau sydd o hyd
yn gwneuthur gosteg â’u chwyrnellu chwim.
Ac am nad ydyw’n byw ar hyd y daith,
o gri ein geni hyd ein holaf gŵyn,
yn ddim ond crych dros dro neu gysgod craith
ar lyfnder esmwyth y mudandod mwyn,
ni wnawn, wrth ffoi am byth o’n ffwdan ffôl,
ond llithro i’r llonyddwch mawr yn ôl.

T.H. Parry-Williams


No earthly riot that we make can mar
The peace of heaven; there is no voice here
With power to match its tranquil might and jar
That endless perfect overarching sphere.
Not all our human tumult here below
Can break the seal of silence, nor surprise
Whatever moves the stars to come and go
Forever spiralling on soundless skies.
For all our life, from cradle to the grave,
From infant’s cry to our last agony,
Is but a shadow-wound, a passing wave
Which leaves no scar on that smooth silent sea,
As from this earthly fuss we find release
To meld once more with everlasting peace.

Week 283: The Owl, by Edward Thomas

I guess we all have our poetic touchstones, poems that we measure other poems against, talismans against the tritely sentimental, the strained or strident, the artily pretentious. This week’s poem is one of my touchstones. Not a lot happens in it – a man comes to an inn after a long day’s walk, looking forward to rest and refreshment, and as he goes in hears an owl calling from the hill. Yet somehow, like a clearing sky at twilight, it opens up whole vistas of time and imagination. A lot turns on that ‘salted’ in the last stanza. No easy sentiment here – the poet is honest enough to admit that the thought of others less fortunate than himself adds relish to his situation. And yet, after all, what clinches the poem is the compassion of its last two lines.

The Owl

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Edward Thomas

Week 282: O Wha’s The Bride, by Hugh MacDiarmid

At first sight, the idea behind this poem seems a bit daft. The poet imagines a bridegroom on his wedding night apparently about to be shocked by the realisation that his virgin bride is actually the product of a long process of genetic mingling. Well, unless he had thought up till then that the human race had survived throughout the millennia by parthenogenesis, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. Nor is it clear why he should view the process as malevolent and despoiling: it’s just the way things are, and after all his bride wouldn’t be there without these contributions from his predecessors. And yet, viewing the matter from another angle, perhaps MacDiarmid is right: just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that there is not an intangible and disturbing mystery about them, and if we normally shut our eyes to that mystery, then it is all the more the poet’s job to open them. Still not quite sure I grasp his thought, and yet it seems to me a remarkable poem.

O Wha’s The Bride

O wha’s the bride that carries the bunch
O’ thistles blinterin’ white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.

For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to’r than hersel’,
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.

O wha’s been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
– A man that deed or I was born
This evil thing has din.

And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
– Nae lass, gudeman, sin’ Time began
’S hed ony mair to gie.

But I can gie ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o’ willin’ hands,
And you sall hae my breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.

And on my lips ye’ll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o’ a’ the men that in
My virgin womb ha’e met.

Hugh MacDiarmid

Week 281: The Curse of Cromwell, by W.B.Yeats

The Yeatsian rhetoric and Yeatsian rhythms are very seductive, so seductive that it may be some time before one begins to look askance at what is actually being said. This poem is a case in point, expressing the poet’s nostalgia for an unchanging, hierarchical society that comprises an aristocratic elite, a sturdy but deferential peasantry, and a few well-rewarded poets between. ‘His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified’. Not, you note, the other way round, and one may reflect that it is much easier to be in favour of an unchanging social order when others are doing the serving and you’re the one being served. And yet, whatever my egalitarian reservations, I find the poem compellingly memorable.

The Curse Of Cromwell

You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go:
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride –
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

All neighbourly content and easy talk are gone,
But there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on.
He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount,
And we and all the Muses are things of no account.
They have schooling of their own, but I pass their schooling by,
What can they know that we know that know the time to die?
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

But there’s another knowledge that my heart destroys,
As the fox in the old fable destroyed the Spartan boy’s
Because it proves that things both can and cannot be;
That the swordsmen and the ladies can still keep company,
Can pay the poet for a verse and hear the fiddle sound,
That I am still their servant though all are underground.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

I came on a great house in the middle of the night,
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through;
And when I pay attention I must out and walk
Among the dogs and horses that understand my talk.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?


Week 280: In The Small Hours, by Thomas Hardy

Philip Larkin said he would not have wanted Hardy’s ‘Collected Poems’ one page shorter. I wouldn’t go that far, but I could happily fill a couple of years of this blog simply with Hardy poems. Here’s another, that captures with aching precision one of those wistful moments between dream and waking that seem to become more frequent as one goes older.

In The Small Hours

I lay in my bed and fiddled
With a dreamland viol and bow,
And the tunes flew back to my fingers
I had melodied years ago
It was two or three in the morning
When I fancy-fiddled so
Long reels and country-dances,
And hornpipes swift and slow.

And soon anon came crossing
The chamber in the gray
Figures of jigging fieldfolk –
Saviours of corn and hay –
To the air of ‘Haste to the Wedding.’
As after a wedding-day;
Yea, up and down the middle
In windless whirls went they!

There danced the bride and bridegroom,
And couples in a train,
Gay partners time and travail
Had longwhiles stilled amain!….
It seemed a thing for weeping
To find, at slumber’s wane
And morning’s sly increeping,
That Now, not Then, held reign.

Thomas Hardy