Week 446: In A Disused Graveyard, by Robert Frost

So it seems that the tide of the coronavirus epidemic may finally be ebbing from our British shores at least, leaving us with a lot of life to catch up on and a lot of death to remember. Some cause for cautious euphoria, but of course, I reflect, it’s not as if we are now going to stop dying of this and that: it just won’t be in such an obsessively media-monitored way. Which brings to mind this poem by Robert Frost. I like it, even if I feel the sentiment of the last stanza doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny: I don’t see any sense in which can stones be said to believe or not believe anything. And yet how seductive is the pathetic fallacy, especially in the hands of such a master of cadence.

In a Disused Graveyard

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
 
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
 
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
 
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Robert Frost

Week 445: Bluebells, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Just for a week or two each year, at the end of April into early May, my Chiltern countryside is at its spring perfection, and once again I have been walking in Rushmore Wood, along the broad track speckled with the first fall of cherry petals, the wooded slope dropping away to my left, thick with bluebells: pools, lakes, rivers, waterfalls of blue cascading down the slope, and the misty Oxfordshire plain below, glimpsed through a light screen of young beech leaves. Housman, of course, was good on bluebells: ‘And like a skylit water stood/The bluebells in the azured wood’, but when it comes to the detail it is hard to beat Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear, but you have to admire his sincerity and passion. Here he is in his journal engaging all his senses in an attempt to define the flower’s peculiar lovely ‘inscape’.

‘In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transoms. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them’.

There is also this quatrain in his poem ‘May Magnificat’:

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
 ……And magic cuckoocall
 ……Caps, clears, and clinches all—‘

Sadly it is many years since I heard a cuckoo in these parts.

Week 444: From ‘Dr Faustus’, by Christopher Marlowe

I suspect that outside academic circles the poetry of Elizabethan playwright, wit, spy and all round bad boy Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is now little read. Certainly he doesn’t have the broad humanity of his contemporary William Shakespeare, yet he wields a fine supple verse line and was after all someone whom Shakespeare himself seems to have viewed with considerable if possibly grudging respect: although we cannot be sure, there is a good case to made that he is the ‘rival poet’ of the Sonnets, and certainly when in Sonnet 86 Shakespeare refers to ‘the proud full sail of his great verse’, that would seem a tribute very applicable to Marlowe’s work.

Here are lines from the concluding scene of Marlowe’s play ‘Dr Faustus’, where the midnight hour is approaching at which the doctor’s soul becomes forfeit to hell. In an age when there was a belief in literal damnation this must have been pretty scary stuff and it remains powerful even today.

‘O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi! *     
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.’

Christopher Marlowe

* Run slow, run slow, ye horses of the night

Week 443: Ambulances, by Philip Larkin

Oh God, not another batch of letters. Philip Larkin’s must be well on the way to becoming the most over-documented life in the history of poetry. Perhaps when people have finished picking over everything he ever said or wrote to anyone else and everything anyone else ever said or wrote to him, not to mention hoovering up every last scrap of his doggerel, they can go back to enjoying the compassionate craftsmanship of a few dozen rare fine poems and say, in the words of Browning, ‘Well, I forget the rest’.

And one such poem is surely this one, so carefully observed and subtly formulated, with its characteristic precision of placement. Consider, for example, if the sixth line had read ‘In time all streets are visited’. For me that seemingly inconsequential shift would have lost a haunting ambiguity, making it that much less effective in opening up one of those ‘long perspectives’ Larkin was so good at evoking. And consider also what the poem gains by its use of metre and rhyme, that Larkin saw as an integral part of what in another poem he calls ‘the lost displays’. As he was wont to say when considering the less formal work of others, ‘That’s quite nice – why not make a poem of it?’. No one could ever accuse him of not making a poem of it.

Ambulances

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Philip Larkin

Week 442: Melin Trefin, by William Williams (‘Crwys’)

A couple of weeks back I promised my correspondent Albert that I’d have a go at translating one of his favourite Welsh poems, so here’s the result; hope it passes muster.

The poem in question is by William Williams (1875-1968), who took the bardic name ‘Crwys’. I guess bardic names are quite useful in a country like Wales that seems rather short on variety when it comes to personal nomenclature; actually given the number of David Suttons around I rather wish I’d thought of one for myself.

The Welsh text is slightly different from that found elsewhere online, but I’ve taken mine from ‘Blodeugerdd o Farddoniaeth Gymraeg Yr Ugeinfed Ganrif’, so I’m assuming that’s right.

Crwys was a preacher and archdruid as well as a poet. I came across this account of how he to came to write the poem; such accounts seem to be rare among poets but I always find them interesting where they do exist.

‘”I had been invited to preach at Trefin,” he said, “and, as was the custom of the time, I was put up by a member of the congregation, a Mrs Owen whose husband had come from North Wales to manage a quarry nearby. After supper, I walked down to the little cove nearby and saw the ruin of this old mill. I then went back to the house and I removed the cup and saucer that were still on the supper table and pushed back the tablecloth and began to write. It all came to me quite easy, except for the last four lines – they came from above!”’

Melin Trefin

Nid yw’r felin heno’n malu
Yn Nhrefin ym min y môr,
Trodd y merlyn olaf adre’
Dan ei bwn o drothwy’r ddôr,
Ac mae’r rhod fu gynt yn rhygnu
Ac yn chwyrnu drwy y fro,
Er pan farw’r hen felinydd
Wedi rhoi ei holaf dro.

Rhed y ffrwd garedig eto
Gyda thalcen noeth y tŷ,
Ond ddaw ned i’r fal ai farlys,
A’r hen olwyn fawr ni thry;
Lle dôi gwenith gwyn Llanrhiain
Derfyn haf yn llwythi cras,
Ni cheir mwy ond tres o wymon
Gydag ambell frwynen las.

Segur faen sy’n gwylio’r fangre
Yn y curlaw mawr a’r gwynt,
Dilythyren garreg goffa
O’r amseroedd difyr gynt,
Ond ’does yma neb yn malu,
Namyn amser swrth a’r hin
Wrthi’n chwalu ac yn malu,
Malu’r felin yn Nhrefin.

William Williams (‘Crwys’)

The Mill at Trefin

Tonight the mill at Trefin,
That stands beside the foam,
Grinds nothing: the last pony
Has borne its last load home.
The grating wheel whose grumbles
Once filled the country round
Stopped when the old miller died.
Tonight it makes no sound.

The kindly stream still running
Beside the mill’s bare brow
Turns the big old wheel no more.
None bring their barley now.
Where white wheat from Llanrhiain
Lay heaped at summer’s close
Now seaweed trails, and only
The scattered green rush grows.

The idle stone keeps vigil
In wind and driving rain,
Unlettered monument to days
That will not come again.
For nothing now is ground here,
Yet time and weather still
Graft on at their grim labour
And grind down Trefin mill.

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