Week 495: Siste Smerte, by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

The Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) wrote this poignant lyric towards the end of his long life. I don’t know what kind of reputation Bjørnson enjoys now, but when I was in Norway some sixty years ago I got the impression that while Norwegian readers were proud of Ibsen for having gained an international reputation, they reserved their actual affection much more for Bjørnson, whom they regarded as their national poet. Be that as it may, he did not figure in my Cambridge syllabus, which concerned itself with more modern figures like Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, and my Cambridge tutor was slightly dismissive of him as ‘a Grand Old Man’ of literature. I rather liked him, but what do I know…

The translation that follows is my own.

Siste Smerte

Å, nu har jeg lært det
hva jeg fryktet først,
at den siste smerte,
den er også størst.

Kan ei mer arbeide,
har ei krefter nok,
kan ei lenger veide
mine tankers flokk.

De er over fjellet,
samles aldri mer.
Og jeg selv på hellet
imot graven ner.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Last Pain

Ah, now I have learned it,
What I feared at first:
That the pain we suffer last,
That one is the worst.

Can no longer labour,
All my powers wane,
Cannot herd together
My flock of thoughts again.

Far across the mountain
Forever more they stray,
While upon the nether slope
I take a downward way.

Week 494: To A Young Poet, by R.S.Thomas

Like many of R.S.Thomas’s poems, this one is somewhat bleak and perhaps a little extreme, in, for example, the idea that nothing written in a poet’s twenties will cause the poet anything but shame later on. Keats and Wilfred Owen died at twenty-five, Keith Douglas at twenty-four, and while I am all for standards, to suggest that they, had they lived, would of necessity come to disown even their better efforts seems to me to be setting the bar a little high. But of course, the poem could be intended to be read as a soliloquy in which the poet is specifically addressing his younger self, in which case fair enough.

Either way, from a professional point of view I find it a very interesting poem, and I much admire its reticent and self-critical spirit, and its implied willingness to destroy work that does not come up to scratch. I know that some poets keep everything they ever write: drafts, variants, even rejects. I find this slightly horrifying. We have no duty to supply grist to the academic mills. Squeeze, scrap, burn, kill, say I. Did any poet ever regret destroying a poem? I doubt it. If there’s really something wanting to be said it will come back sooner or later in another and perhaps truer form. But did any poet ever regret not destroying a poem? I suspect that the Elysian fields are full of poets wandering about, oblivious of the asphodel, and muttering to themselves: ‘Crass incompetence… what on earth was I thinking of…’ My personal practice from time to time is to burn my accumulated rejects in the garden at midnight under a full moon, then cover the ashes with three spadefuls of earth. My wife says she sometimes wonders what she married. I don’t understand this at all. Some people turn into werewolves; I just like to be thorough.

Anyway, over to R.S.Thomas…

To A Young Poet

For the first twenty years you are still growing,
Bodily, that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.

From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.

You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.


Week 493: An tè dhan tug mi …, by Sorley Maclean

If you think that Scots Gaelic poetry is all about misty corries and wild sea-voyages and laments for fallen chieftains – and of course it is, in part, all those things – then the poetry of Sorley Maclean (or to give him his proper Gaelic name, Somhairle MacGillEain) may come as a bit of a surprise, being quite edgy and modern, concerned with his difficulties in love and experiences in war. In a way Sorley (1911-1996) is an odd case, since he managed to acquire an international reputation as a poet despite writing in what is now, sadly, very much a minority language, and one little known outside Scotland, or indeed even within it: a tongue that for most is enchantingly but irredeemably alien. So, given the relatively small number of readers able to engage properly with the original texts, I think that a good deal of that reputation has had to be taken on trust. True, Sorley provided his own English translations of his poems, which are functional but to my mind read a little awkwardly. Really it would be surprising if this were not the case: there are of course many examples of poets able to write competent verse in more than one language, but real poetry? Offhand I can’t think of any: the head may speak many languages; the heart, only one.

Anyway, here is one of Sorley’s poignant lyrics of despairing love, and, for the reasons given, I have ventured to offer my own translation rather than his. Hm, what’s the Gaelic for chutzpah: perhaps ‘dànachd’ comes close…

An tè dhan tug mi . . .

An tè dhan tug mi uile ghaol,
cha tug i gaol dhomh air a shon;
ged a chiùrradh mise air a sàillibh,
cha do thuig i ’n tàmailt idir.

Ach tric an smuaintean na h-oidhch’
an uair bhios m’ aigne ’na coille chiair,
thig osag chuimhne ’gluasad duillich,
a’ cur a furtachd gu luasgan.

Agus bho dhoimhne coille chuim,
o fhreumhach snodhaich ’s meangach meanbh,
bidh ’n eubha throm: carson bha h-àille
mar fhosgladh fàire ri latha?

Somhairle MacGillEain

She to whom I gave

I gave to her all love; she gave to me
No love in return.
Although I suffered for her sake
She never saw the shame of it at all.

But often when I lie awake
Memory like a night-breeze
Stirs the dim wood of my mind,
Turning my peace to unrest.

And from the heart of that wood,
From sap-filled root and slender bough,
Will come the heavy cry: why was her beauty
Like a door that opened for me on to day?

Week 492: Empty Vessel, by Hugh MacDiarmid

As I noted in week 172, Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps, along with Ezra Pound, the most politically problematic, or at least confusing, of 20th century English-language poets: at various times, and sometimes at the same time, he gave his allegiance to fascism, communism and Scottish nationalism, all of which may have stemmed from his loathing for the English political class leading him to subscribe to the dubious proposition that my enemy’s enemy is of necessity my friend. Be that as it may, it seems to me that he wrote some very memorable stuff, and I think that this poem, for example, shows him at his best, a pure compassionate lyric about a woman whom I take to have lost a child, either by miscarriage or from infant mortality

Ayont: beyond
Cairney: small stony hill? (not sure about this – related to Gaelic carnan, small cairn?)
Tousie: dishevelled, tousled
Bairnie: small child
Wunds: winds
Warlds: worlds
Licht: light
Aa: all

Empty Vessel

I met ayont the cairney
A lass wi tousie hair
Singin till a bairnie
That was nae langer there.

Wunds wi warlds to swing
Dinna sing sae sweet,
The licht that bends owre aa thing
Is less ta’en up wi’it.

Hugh MacDiarmid

Week 491: California Hills In August, by Dana Gioia

I relish this poem for its particularity even though, paradoxically, I am not a fan of the kind of weather or landscape it particularizes: personally, during the rare heatwaves we have in this country, I hate ‘the bright stillness of the noon’ that seems to hold one trapped in a suspension of energy and interest and long for the cool of the evening when the infinite possibilities of earth and sky open up again. So yes, I would be just that ‘someone who found/these fields unbearable’, but that doesn’t stop me admiring the skill with which they are evoked, and I guess the truth is, as Gioia suggests, that it all depends what you have grown up with, on that first imprinting of the soul.

California Hills In August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain —
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Dana Gioia

Postscipt: If you feel a bit hot and dusty after reading this poem you could always freshen up with a dip into Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’, that includes lines like:

‘Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard….’

And ends

‘…..when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’

Week 490: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost

Some poems you read, think ‘yes, very nice’, then forget until you come across them again, and some, once met, you live with. For me this is one of the latter. As a teenager I loved to run at night, and one of my courses, a fifteen-miler, took me far out into unlit countryside. One winter night at about the ten mile mark, just where a country lane passed through dense woods on either side, it began to snow, soft feathery flakes whirling down out of a dark sky, tingling on my tongue and carpeting the ground so that it was like running on white moss. I found that I knew Frost’s poem by heart – it is one of those poems it is difficult not to know by heart – and it ran in my head as I ran, making one of those rare magical moments when life and poetry come together in a perfect fit. I was troubled not at all by the suggestion of a final permanent sleep in that closing line – was I not young, and immortal?

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Week 489: Reference Back, by Philip Larkin

This year sees the centenary of the birth in 1922 of Philip Larkin, surely by any measure one of the best half-dozen English-language poets of the latter part of the twentieth century. Apparently not everyone will be happy to celebrate this, and that is a pity. Certainly there are aspects of Larkin’s character and opinions which are to say the least offputting, yet they infect very little the select body of work that he himself saw fit to publish in his lifetime, and surely it should not be too difficult to throw out the racist bathwater while remaining grateful for the entirely humane babies. This week’s choice begins, fairly characteristically, with some wry reflections on domesticity and filial duty (I take the other person in the poem to be his mother) and then, in an equally characteristic shift of register, takes full flight in the third stanza, attaining effortlessly to that highwater mark of poetry, the precise and hauntingly lyrical expression of a universal truth.

Reference Back

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
From my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin

Week 488: Der Alte Brunnen, by Hans Carossa

I have long loved this lyric by the German poet Hans Carossa (1878-1956) with its slightly mysterious evocation of a starry night, its silence broken only by the plashing of a fountain, and the crunch of footsteps on gravel as a wanderer comes to drink from the fountain’s basin. I’m afraid all I can offer here for the English reader is a fairly literal crib — the language of the poem is not difficult but its structure is very tight, and I did spend quite some time trying to come up with a matching rhyme scheme before deciding that if the poem was to receive true poetic justice, it would have to wait for a better talent than mine.

Der Alte Brunnen

Lösch aus dein Licht und schlaf! Das immer wache
Geplätscher nur vom alten Brunnen tönt.
Wer aber Gast war unter meinem Dache,
Hat sich stets bald an diesen Ton gewöhnt.

Zwar kann es einmal sein, wenn du schon mitten
Im Traume bist, daß Unruh geht ums Haus,
Der Kies beim Brunnen knirscht von harten Tritten,
Das helle Plätschern setzt auf einmal aus,

Und du erwachst, — dann mußt du nicht erschrecken!
Die Sterne stehn vollzählig überm Land,
Und nur ein Wandrer trat ans Marmorbecken,
Der schöpft vom Brunnen mit der hohlen Hand.

Er geht gleich weiter. Und es rauscht wie immer.
O freue dich, du bleibst nicht einsam hier.
Viel Wandrer gehen fern im Sternenschimmer,
Und mancher noch ist auf dem Weg zu dir.

Hans Carossa

The Old Fountain

Put out your light and sleep. The only sound
Is the old fountain’s ever wakeful purl.
Whoever though was guest beneath my roof
Was always soon accustomed to this note.

True, it can happen, when you are in mid-dream
That there will be unrest about the house,
The gravel by the fountain crunch beneath hard footsteps,
The bright purl of the water suddenly cease,

And you will wake – you must not be afraid!
The stars stand in full muster above the land,
Only a wanderer trod to the marble basin,
Who scoops from the fountain with a hollow hand.

He soon goes on his way. And it murmurs as ever.
Oh, but be glad, you’ll not stay lonely here.
Many there are who wander far by starlight,
And many yet are on the way to you.

Week 487: August, 1968, by W.H.Auden

It’s been a while since we had a W.H.Auden poem. This one was written in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia some fifty-four years ago.

August, 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.


Week 486: From ‘Kilmeny’ by James Hogg

This is part of a longer poem by the Scots poet James Hogg (1770-1835). I give only the beginning plus one quatrain from near the end and omit a lot of allegorical stuff about sinless virgins and radiant beings that to my mind lacks the verve of the evocative opening stanzas. The whole poem is easily accessible online, but I do feel it would have been wiser of Hogg to let the mystery be and leave us to our own imaginings as to where Kilmeny had been: fairylands work better if not made too explicit, a music of horns dimly blowing at the edge of the world. This is something that J.R.R.Tolkien was well aware of when in a letter to a correspondent he expressed his fears, justifiably in my view, that ‘The Silmarillion’ would not have the same appeal as ‘Lord of the Rings’. He says ‘Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.’

From ‘Kilmeny’

Bonnie Kilmeny gaed up the glen;
But it wasna to meet Duneira’s men,
Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
It was only to hear the yorlin sing,
And pu’ the cress-flower round the spring;
The scarlet hypp and the hindberrye,
And the nut that hung frae the hazel tree;
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
But lang may her minny look o’er the wa’,
But lang may she seek i’ the green-wood shaw;
Lang the laird o’ Duneira blame,
And lang, lang greet or Kilmeny come hame!

When many a day had come and fled,
When grief grew calm, and hope was dead,
When mess for Kilmeny’s soul had been sung,
When the bedesman had pray’d and the dead bell rung,
Late, late in gloamin’ when all was still,
When the fringe was red on the westlin hill,
The wood was sere, the moon i’ the wane,
The reek o’ the cot hung over the plain,
Like a little wee cloud in the world its lane;
When the ingle low’d wi’ an eiry leme,
Late, late in the gloamin’ Kilmeny came hame!

‘Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?
Lang hae we sought baith holt and den;
By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree,
Yet you are halesome and fair to see.
Where gat you that joup o’ the lily scheen?
That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?
And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?
Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?’

Kilmeny look’d up with a lovely grace,
But nae smile was seen on Kilmeny’s face;
As still was her look, and as still was her e’e,
As the stillness that lay on the emerant lea,
Or the mist that sleeps on a waveless sea.
For Kilmeny had been, she knew not where,
And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare;
Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew…..


When seven lang years had come and fled,
When grief was calm, and hope was dead;
When scarce was remember’d Kilmeny’s name,
Late, late in a gloamin’ Kilmeny came hame!

James Hogg

its lane=alone, by itself