Week 250: Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden

A sad piece, this one by the American poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980), and one that speaks to me powerfully of that dislocation between the generations that perhaps always exists, but was particularly acute for those of us who came to adolescence during the nineteen-sixties, when we rejected so much that seemed to us foolish or wrong-headed about our parents’ world – its deference, its intolerance, its unquestioning acceptance of class and racial divisions, its lip-service to a religion whose more demanding precepts it cheerfully ignored, its militaristic preoccupation with shiny black shoes and short haircuts – and then were faced with the problem, as all generations must be, of preserving what had been good about that world and of recognising that for all our differences we had been loved, and that parental love carries responsibilities, which we in our turn must now take on.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm he’d call,
And slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden

Week 249: Yesterday Lost, by Ivor Gurney

The artist John Constable once wrote ‘The world is wide: no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither are there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world’

I think he would approved of this little poem by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) on a similar theme. As with many of Gurney’s poems, the syntax may seem a bit odd in places, but the individuality and sincerity of the man shine through. Who else, except perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins, could have written that ‘precise unpraisèd grace’?

Yesterday Lost

What things I have missed today, I know very well,
But the seeing of them each next day is miracle.
Nothing between Bredon and Dursley has
Any day yesterday’s precise unpraisèd grace.
The changed light, or curve changed mistily,
Coppice, now bold cut, yesterday’s mystery.
A sense of mornings, once seen, for ever gone,
Its own for ever: alive, dead, and my possession.

Ivor Gurney

Week 248: Vergissmeinnicht, by Keith Douglas

I think that of all the poems of the Second World War this one comes closest to the spirit of Wilfred Owen in expressing ‘war, and the pity of war’. Of course, in many ways Douglas is nothing like Owen. There is none of the exalted, quasi-religious diction of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, none of the dreamlike imagery of ‘Strange Meeting’. Just a warrior’s grim acceptance of the necessity of combat and the facts of combat, yet at the end, as in ‘Strange Meeting’, that same redeeming recognition of the enemy’s humanity, captured in the perfectly balanced, metaphysical neatness of the last stanza.


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone,
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked by at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Keith Douglas

Week 247: Thalassa, by Louis MacNeice

This may seem an unusually upbeat poem for MacNeice – at times you feel all it needs is a mention of the happy isles and the great Achilles to segue into Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – but of course there is a good deal of tension here between the apparent negativity of the remembered past and the positivity of aspiration for the future. Did MacNeice see himself as one of Auden’s ‘ruined boys’, forced to seek redemption? But I am drawn to its valiant spirit, even if that spirit is undercut by a slight desperation.


Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge –
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch –
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church –
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose records shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life. Put out to sea.

Louis MacNeice

Week 246: Sally In Our Alley, by Henry Carey

Henry Carey (1687-1743) was a prolific balladeer, playwright and satirist credited, among other things, with giving us the expression namby pamby, which he coined as a nickname for unfortunate fellow writer Ambrose Phillips. 

Robert Graves once cited ‘Sally In Our Alley’ to me as an example of that very rare thing in our language, a poem of pure happiness. Well, yes, though it could be argued that for all the jaunty defiance of its rhythms the poem has some dark social undertones, and the truth is that I had always worried about the young apprentice and his Sally. What, after all, was the most likely prognosis for their love? Poverty, toil, infant mortality, disease, premature ageing, the workhouse… I suspect that the poem’s enduring appeal has had much to do with how well it has accorded with the slightly desperate cheerfulness of the working classes still very much in evidence in my childhood – that philosophy of making the best of things and having a lot to be thankful for, sitting uneasily alongside dreams of a better life, and above all that heroic faith in the power of human love to redeem the misery of circumstance. 

Sally In Our Alley

Of all the girls that are so smart
There’s none like pretty Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.
There is no lady in the land
Is half so sweet as Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

Her father he makes cabbage-nets,
And through the streets does cry ‘em;
Her mother she sells laces long
To such as please to buy ‘em:
But sure such folks could ne’er beget
So sweet a girl as Sally!
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in my alley.

When she is by, I leave my work,
I love her so sincerely;
My master comes like any Turk,
And bangs me most severely:
But let him bang his bellyful,
I’ll bear it all for Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

Of all the days that’s in the week
I dearly love but one day–
And that’s the day that comes betwixt
A Saturday and Monday;
For then I’m drest all in my best
To walk abroad with Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

My master carries me to church,
And often am I blamed
Because I leave him in the lurch
As soon as text is namèd;
I leave the church in sermon-time
And slink away to Sally;
She is the darling of my heart,
And she lives in our alley.

My master and the neighbours all
Make game of me and Sally,
And, but for her, I’d better be
A slave and row a galley;
But when my seven long years are out,
O, then I’ll marry Sally;
O, then we’ll wed, and then we’ll bed–
But not in our alley! 

Henry Carey

Week 245: The Shy Man, by Theodore Roethke

I have never quite made my mind up about the work of the American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). I find the musicality of his verse captivating, but when it comes to tone and substance somehow I don’t quite ‘get’ him: the poems come across to me as a bit fey, as not quite earthed. But I do like the way his lines move. See what you think.  

The Shy Man

The full moon was shining upon the broad sea;
I sang to the one star that looked down at me;
I sang to the white house that grazed on the quay, –
As I walked by the high sea-wall.
But my lips they,
My lips they,
Said never a word,
As I moped by the high sea-wall.

The curlew’s slow night song came on the water.
That tremble of sweet notes set my heart astir,
As I walked beside her, the O’Connell’s daughter,
I knew that I did love her.
But my lips they,
My lips they
Said never a word,
As we walked by the high sea-wall.

The full moon has fallen, the night wind is down
And I lie here thinking in bleak Bofin town,
I lie here and thinking, ‘I am not alone’
For here close beside me is O’Connell’s daughter,
And my lips they, my lips they,
Say many a word,
As we embrace by the high sea-wall.
O! my lips they, my lips they
Say many a word,
As we kiss by the high sea-wall.

Theodore Roethke


Week 244: You Hated Spain, by Ted Hughes

1998 saw the publication of Ted Hughes’s ‘Birthday Letters’, a verse-chronicle of the poet’s troubled marriage to fellow-poet Sylvia Plath. I read it when it first came out, which is a touch hypocritical of me since I have reservations about how far famous poets should go in feeding the biographical industry that tends to spring up around them. Of course it can be argued that an understanding of the life is necessary to a full understanding of the work, but I don’t know – is our appreciation of the ‘Iliad’, for example, really much impaired by our knowing nothing whatsoever about Mr Homer’s personal life, let alone Mrs Homer’s? Still, when these things are on offer it is hard to look away, and I have to admire Hughes’s striving for what must often have been a painful veracity. 

Inevitably with a collection like this the quality of the poems is a bit uneven, but there are plenty marked by Hughes’s characteristic raw energy and startling powers of observation. I pondered which to feature. ‘Daffodils’? ‘Flounders’? ‘Red’? ‘Robbing Myself’? (there really should be more poems that give a starring role to potatoes). But finally I went for this piece with its darkly sensuous imagery and, at the end, its wistful tenderness.

You Hated Spain

Spain frightened you. Spain
Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.
You did not know the language, your soul was empty
Of the signs, and the welding light
Made your blood shrivel. Bosch
Held out a spidery hand and you took it
Timidly, a bobby-sox American.
You saw right down to the Goya funeral grin
And recognized it, and recoiled
As your poems winced into chill, as your panic
Clutched back towards college America.
So we sat as tourists at the bullfight
Watching bewildered bulls awkwardly butchered,
Seeing the grey-faced matador, at the barrier
Just below us, straightening his bent sword
And vomiting with fear. And the horn
That hid itself inside the blowfly belly
Of the toppled picador punctured
What was waiting for you. Spain
Was the land of your dreams: the dust-red cadaver
You dared not wake with, the puckering amputations
No literature course had glamorized.
The juju land behind your African lips.
Spain was what you tried to wake up from
And could not. I see you, in moonlight,
Walking the empty wharf at Alicante
Like a soul waiting for the ferry,
A new soul, still not understanding,
Thinking it is still your honeymoon
In the happy world, with your whole life waiting,
Happy, and all your poems still to be found.

Ted Hughes