Week 295: During Wind and Rain, by Thomas Hardy

The theme and mood of this poem, an aching nostalgia for the past, are very similar to those of last week’s piece by Trumbull Stickney. Not being didactically involved with poetry, I feel no great urge to make critical judgments: the spirit of this blog is simply one of I like this, you might too. But I am mildly interested as to exactly why I should feel instinctively that the Stickney poem is good, but this Hardy poem, despite a certain quaintness of diction, is better; indeed, I would say it is touched with greatness. Something to do with the individuality of it, the feeling that no other poet could have written anything like it? Something to do with power and prowess, with the electric charge of lines like ‘Down their carved names the raindrop ploughs’? I come to no sure conclusion, but then, I don’t have to. I like this, you might too…

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs —
He, she, all of them — yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss —
Elders and juniors — aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all —
Men and maidens — yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them — aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Thomas Hardy

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Week 294: Mnemosyne, by Trumbull Stickney

The plaintive romanticism of this piece by the American poet Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904) is not the sort of thing that normally appeals to me, but I do like how the sensuous solidity of its detail underpins the haunting refrain.

Mnemosyne 

It’s autumn in the country I remember.  

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.  

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.  

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.  

It’s empty down the country I remember.  

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.  

It’s lonely in the country I remember.  

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.  

It’s dark about the country I remember.  

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.  

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.  

It rains across the country I remember.

Trumbull Stickney

Week 293: Losses, by Randall Jarrell

Another poem from the Second World War, this time from the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), who served in the United States Army Air Forces during that conflict. Jarrell was also a very readable and influential critic; his essay on Robert Frost, for example, did much to change that poet’s image from rustic sage to something far more complex and interesting.  

I have one problem with the text of this poem. My longhand copy, that I made from a library book about fifty years ago, has the tenth line as ‘We died like ants or pets or foreigners’. When I came to check my text against online sources, I find that most, but not all, have it as ‘We died like aunts or pets or foreigners’. Now, while acknowledging the sad fact that aunts do die, I can’t help feeling that ‘ants’ fits the poem better, and I am going to stick with ‘ants’ unless and until someone who actually has the original book tells me otherwise. Anyone, please?

Losses

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes – and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like ants or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores–
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions–
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

Randall Jarrell

Week 292: First Frost, by Andrei Voznesensky

A tenderly observed piece by the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010)

First Frost

A girl is freezing in a telephone booth,
huddled in her flimsy coat,
her face stained by tears
and smeared with lipstick.

She breathes on her thin little fingers.
Fingers like ice. Glass beads in her ears.

She has to beat her way back alone
down the icy street.

First frost. A beginning of losses.
The first frost of telephone phrases.

It is the start of winter glittering on her cheek,
the first frost of having been hurt.

Andrei Voznesensky (translated by Stanley Kunitz)

Week 291: Walking Wounded, by Vernon Scannell

This piece by the colourful Vernon Scannell (1922-2007), based on a personal experience of the poet in Normandy where he served with the Gordon Highlanders, is perhaps one of the more memorable poems to come out of the Second World War, the compassionate eloquence of its conclusion underpinned by the realism of the preceding detail. 

The Walking Wounded

A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown
Their green and silent antics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.
In the ditch at the cross-roads the fallen rider lay
Hugging his dead machine and did not stir
At crunch of mortar, tantrum of a Bren
Answering a Spandau’s manic jabber.
Then into sight the ambulances came,
Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,
The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,
Slow waggonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks
That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles
Made mythopoeic by their mortal freight
And crimson crosses on the dirty white.
This grave procession passed, though, for a while,
The grinding of their engines could be heard,
A dark noise on the pallor of the morning,
Dark as dried blood; and then it faded, died.
The road was empty, but it seemed to wait—
Like a stage that knows its cast is in the wings—
For a different traffic to appear.
The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;
Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped,
And then they came, the walking wounded,
Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,
Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,
And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks;
Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings;
A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
Not one had suffered from a lethal hurt,
They were not magnified by noble wounds,
There was no splendor in that company.
And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs;
Imagination pauses and returns
To see them walking still, but multiplied
In thousands now. And when heroic corpses
Turn slowly in their decorated sleep
And every ambulance has disappeared
The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
And when recalled they must bear arms again.

Vernon Scannell

 

Week 290: To Norman Cameron 1905 – 1953, by James Reeves

Elegies tend to be sad by definition, but this one by James Reeves seems sadder than most in that it interweaves a lament for a dead poet friend with a lament for the drying up of his own poetic gift. The other figure in the poem, referred to in the fourth stanza, I would guess to be Robert Graves, who was friend to both Reeves and Cameron but had by this time long left England for Majorca.

To Norman Cameron 1905 – 1953

I asked the river-god a song
Wherewith to mourn your fallen head.
No answer: but a low wind crept
About the stones of his dry bed.

The fingers of insomnia
Turning the pages of self-hate
Are like the incurious wind that stirred
The papery reeds on that estate.

In other days I knew the god
Who flashed and chuckled in the sun.
Where has he taken now his moods
Of shadow and his sense of fun?

The requiem I might have had
From him you would have understood
Just as you also understood
How hard a thing it is, though good,

To hold your peace and wait your time
When there is nothing to be said.
I know it now: I knew you both,
But he is gone, and you are dead.

Even the wind has stopped; no sound
In this dull air is born to live;
So I my desperate silences
To you my friend and poet give.

James Reeves

Week 289: Spraying The Potatoes, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh whose work I delight in for its quirky originality and its wonderful inclusiveness.

Spraying The Potatoes

The barrels of blue potato-spray
Stood on a headland of July
Beside an orchard wall where roses
Were young girls hanging from the sky.

The flocks of green potato-stalks
Were blossom spread for sudden flight,
The Kerr’s Pinks in a frivelled blue,
The Arran Banners wearing white.

And over that potato-field
A hazy veil of woven sun.
Dandelions growing on headlands, showing
Their unloved hearts to everyone.

And I was there with the knapsack sprayer
On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating
Dead on a sunken briar leaf
Over a copper-poisoned ocean.

The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart
Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.
An old man came through a cornfield
Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.

He turned my way. ‘God further the work.’
He echoed an ancient farming prayer.
I thanked him. He eyed the potato-drills.
He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there.’

We talked and our talk was a theme of kings,
A theme for strings. He hunkered down
In the shade of the orchard wall. O roses
The old man dies in the young girl’s frown.

And poet lost to potato-fields,
Remembering the lime and copper smell
Of the spraying barrels he is not lost
Or till blossomed stalks cannot weave a spell.

Patrick Kavanagh