Week 339: Quand vous serez bien vieille, by Keith Bosley

Keith Bosley, who died last year at the age of 81, was a prolific poet and translator, and onetime broadcaster for the BBC World Service. I like his wryly colloquial reworking of the famous Ronsard sonnet (see week 233 for the original).

Quand vous serez bien vieille

When you are old and lost in memory
you might, seized by a sentimental fit
take down this book and blow the dust off it
recalling: ‘Bosley was quite keen on me.’
Your husband, nodding opposite, would start:
‘Eh, what was that?’ You would repeat the name.
‘That poet.’ ‘No, I don’t remember him.
But you were always stealing someone’s heart.’
I shall be dust by then and out of print
who pestered you and could not take a hint
that you preferred another man, ma chère
who would not sell his birthright for a yes
from you, and was not driven by distress
to seek in you what simply was not there.

Keith Bosley


Week 338: North Haven, by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop wrote this elegy for her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Lowell after Lowell’s death in 1977; she herself died two years later. I think that at least back then Lowell enjoyed the huger reputation, but I have to say that I have always found Bishop’s poems a lot more satisfying than Lowell’s, in much the same way as I find Ted Hughes’s more satisfying than Sylvia Plath’s. I guess I like there to be a balance in the work between the inner world of the poet and the outer world of the independently real – call it a passion for the empirically observed – and I find that balance, that passion, more in Bishop and Hughes than in Lowell and Plath. 

But anyway, to the elegy… North Haven is an island community in Maine where towards the end of her life Bishop often spent the summer.

North Haven

(in memoriam: Robert Lowell)

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off, I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse’s tail.

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first ‘discovered girls’
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had ‘such fun’, you said, that classic summer.
(‘Fun’–it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue… And now -– you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Elizabeth Bishop

Week 337: The Joys of the Road, by Bliss Carman

This piece by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman (1862-1929) is one of my very early poetic likes, met with in some school anthology around the age of eleven when I had a very romantic idea of life on the road and tended to answer, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, ‘A tramp’, which did not go down well with my responsible adults but at least was one up in terms of respectability and earnings potential from my other standard answer at the time, ‘A poet’. I was so taken with the poem that I went to the local library to look for more by Carman and, finding nothing available, boldly requested an inter-library loan, braving the indignation of the librarian, who was very much of the old school and really did not like members of the public coming into his library and taking away his books, let alone demanding expensive special services. But a small volume did in due course arrive; sadly I found nothing further in it that really took my fancy. Sorry, librarian.

The Joys of the Road

Now the joys of the road are chiefly these:
A crimson touch on the hard-wood trees;

A vagrant’s morning wide and blue,
In early fall, when the wind walks too;

A shadowy highway cool and brown,
Alluring up and enticing down

From rippled water to dappled swamp,
From purple glory to scarlet pomp;

The outward eye, the quiet will,
And the striding heart from hill to hill;

The tempter apple over the fence;
The cobweb bloom on the yellow quince;

The palish asters along the wood,–
A lyric touch of solitude;

An open hand, an easy shoe,
And a hope to make the day go through,–

Another to sleep with, and a third
To wake me up at the voice of a bird;

A scrap of gossip at the ferry;
A comrade neither glum nor merry,

Who never defers and never demands,
But, smiling, takes the world in his hands, –

Seeing it good as when God first saw
And gave it the weight of his will for law.

And oh, the joy that is never won,
But follows and follows the journeying sun,

By marsh and tide, by meadow and stream,
A will-o’-the-wind, a light-o’-dream,

The racy smell of the forest loam,
When the stealthy sad-heart leaves go home;

The broad gold wake of the afternoon;
The silent fleck of the cold new moon;

The sound of the hollow sea’s release
From stormy tumult to starry peace;

With only another league to wend;
And two brown arms at the journey’s end!

These are the joys of the open road –
For him who travels without a load.

Bliss Carman

Week 336: Afraid, by Walter De La Mare + Little Elegy, by X.J.Kennedy

This week two elegies for small girl children, the first Christian and grave, the second secular and almost playful, but both, I think, quite touching.


Here lies, but seven years old, our little maid
Once of the darkness, oh, so sore afraid!
Light of the World, remember that small fear,
And when nor moon nor stars do shine, draw near.

Walter De La Mare

Little Elegy

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth,
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.


Week 335: Thomas the Rhymer, by Anon

This magnificent and magical ballad has a habit of popping up at odd places in our culture: for example, it is said to have given Washington Irving, who heard it on a visit to Sir Walter Scott, the idea for ‘Rip van Winkle’, it inspired a bravura reworking by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Last Rhyme of True Thomas’, and a setting of it by Steeleye Span was chosen by the late and much missed Terry Pratchett as the one disc out of the eight that he would take to a desert island: he described it as having a ‘twilight atmosphere’.

And just a quick note for anyone interested: my own ‘Collected Poems’ is now available from Greenwich Exchange, see http://www.greenex.co.uk/ge_record_detail.asp?ID=191 For more details see ‘News’.

Thomas the Rhymer

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her skirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett o’ her horse’s mane,
Hung fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas he pu’d aff his cap,
And louted low down on his knee:
‘Hail to thee, Mary, Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth could never be.’

‘O no, O no, Thomas,’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I’m but the Queen o’ fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said;
‘Harp and carp along wi’ me;
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.’

‘Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me.’
Syne he has kiss’d her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

‘Now ye maun go wi’ me,’ she said,
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi’ me;
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro’ weal or woe as may chance to be.’

She’s mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s ta’en true Thomas up behind;
And aye, whene’er her bridle rang,
The steed gaed swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on,
The steed gaed swifter than the wind;
Until they reach’d a desert wide,
And living land was left behind.

‘Light down, light down now, true Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide ye there a little space,
And I will show you ferlies three.

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

‘And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

‘And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

‘But, Thomas, ye sall haud your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see;
For speak ye word in Elfyn-land,
Ye’ll ne’er win back to your ain countrie.’

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded rivers abune the knee;
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk, mirk night, there was nae starlight,
They waded thro’ red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on the earth
Rins through the springs o’ that countrie.

Syne they came to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
It will give thee the tongue that can never lee.’

‘My tongue is my ain,’ true Thomas he said;
‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I might be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye!’—
‘Now haud thy peace, Thomas,’ she said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair o’ shoon of the velvet green;
And till seven years were gane and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen.


Week 334: Grove Hill, by Seamus Heaney

This poem, which is part of a longer sequence, is a good illustration of Seamus Heaney’s gift for moving from the private and particular memory or observation to a moving statement of the universal. The unnamed ‘them’ in the third line are, of course, his parents, who are brought to the mind of a convalescent Heaney by the sound of a boiler starting up – I guess we all have particular sounds that trigger memories of childhood, we lived on a hill and mine would be the sound of the wind on autumn nights, hooting and snuffling outside the house like an invisible animal trying to find a way in.

Grove Hill

Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life
Abruptly, drowsily, like the timed collapse
Of a sawn down tree, I imagine them

In summer season, as it must have been,
And the place, it dawns on me,
Could have been Grove Hill before the oaks were cut,

Where I’d often stand with them on airy Sundays
Shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out
At Magherafelt’s four spires in the distance.

Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.

Seamus Heaney

Week 333: The Last Word, by Matthew Arnold

I don’t know whether Matthew Arnold had any particular debate or personage in mind when he wrote this spirited poem. It is very Victorian in its moral certainty and absolutism. Maybe there were issues and principles in his day that didn’t get lost in a maze of amendments to amendments. But Arnold (1822-1888), son of the Rugby headmaster, poet, critic and inspector of schools, is a bit of a contradiction. His best known poem ‘Dover Beach’ is much more about the loss of moral certitude, yet he had the breezy self-confidence, not to mention cultural arrogance, to suggest that it really was time Welsh people were persuaded or constrained to abandon their language, looking forward to a future in which ‘the difference in language between England and Wales should be effaced, an event which is socially and politically so desirable.’ Yet at the same time he was one the first English writers to take an interest in that marvellous collection of early Welsh prose tales, the ‘Mabinogion’, even if he went a bit far in seeing it as a ‘ruin of antiquity’. As with many Victorians, definitely a bit of cultural dissonance going on.

The Last Word

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said!
Vain thy onset! all stands fast.
Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired: best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged – and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall! 

Matthew Arnold