Week 516: The Makar, by William Soutar

From about the 1920s on, Scottish writers began to engage with questions of politics and national identity, as part of what is called the Scottish Renaissance, and one aspect of this was the forging of a new language for poetry which respected the rich heritage of the past, drawing on both the archaic and the vernacular, the vernacular in question being the lowland dialects of southern and central Scotland rather than those of the Highlands. (The very different Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language, had by that time already long been in retreat and its native speakers were to be found, as today, mainly but not exclusively in the Western Isles).

The effort was not without its detractors, who saw the result as artificial, a ‘plastic Scots’ whose grammatical structures owed too much to standard English, but this poem by William Soutar (1898-1943; see also weeks 61 and 109) does seem to me to express very eloquently what moved himself and others to attempt this forging: the sense of a genuine tradition deep buried but still full of a potential vitality, heard like a music in the blood, compelling one to a particular course of self-expression whatever doubts others, the ‘fremmit men’ estranged from this tradition, might voice.

makar: maker, poet (the fifteenth/sixteenth century Scots poet William Dunbar wrote a famous poem ‘Lament for the Makaris’)
wha: who
lawland: lowland
warsles: wrestles
thocht: thought
mair: more
sang: song
nor a’: than all
wrocht: wrought
ablow: below
wastrey: waste
thorter: frustration, thwarting
leal: loyal, but here more like ‘genuine, true to itself
ain: own: gangs his ain: goes his own i.e. his own desires are in accord with this leal music
gait: way
a’: all
fere: companion
fremmit: estranged
owre: over, too

The Makar

Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue
But warsles wi’ the thocht—
There are mair sangs that bide unsung
Nor a’ that hae been wrocht.

Ablow the wastrey o’ the years,
The thorter o’ himsel’,
Deep buried in his bluid he hears
A music that is leal.

And wi’ this lealness gangs his ain;
And there’s nae ither gait
Though a’ his feres were fremmit men
Wha cry: Owre late, owre late.

William Soutar

Week 515: Autumn, by Vernon Scannell

Maybe I am not the only one rather looking forward to the cool misty days of autumn after a summer far too hot for my taste. And this piece by Vernon Scannell (1922-200) captures the more urban aspects of that season as well as any I know. I like, of course, the fact that poetry quite properly addresses the great themes of our existence: love, loss, death, our place in the cosmos, but I like it too when poems such as this one find time to stitch humbler things into this word-woven fabric of ours: the smell of burnt porridge on the wind, the halo of mist round street-lamps, the mash of fallen leaves in a gutter.

Velutinous: velvety.


It is the football season once more
And the back pages of the Sunday papers
Again show the blurred anguish of goalkeepers.

In Maida Vale, Golders Green and Hampstead
Lamps ripen early in the surprising dusk;
They are furred like stale rinds with a fuzz of mist.

The pavements of Kensington are greasy,
The wind smells of burnt porridge in Bayswater
And the leaves are mashed to silence in the gutter.

The big hotel like an anchored liner
Rides near the park; lit windows hammer the sky.
Like the slow swish of surf the tyres of taxis sigh.

It is a time of year that’s to my taste,
Full of spiced rumours, sharp and velutinous flavours,
Dim with mist that softens the cruel surfaces,
Makes mirrors vague. It is the mist I most favour. 

Vernon Scannell

Week 514: In Hospital: Poona, by Alun Lewis

This week another from the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (see also weeks 48 and 258) who died aged twenty-eight while out in India in the Second World War, and again his subject is the pain of separation from home and loved ones that wartime entails. There are slight awkwardnesses about the poem, and still a few rags of rhetoric that he might have purged given time – I think in particular that the closing two lines are a bit forced – but for me any such flaws are far outweighed by the passion and precision of his remembrance.

In Hospital: Poona

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,
Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.

And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.
And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:

I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there,
And the great mountains, Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,

And also the small nameless mining valley
Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves –
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders –

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

Alun Lewis

Week 513: A Considered Reply To A Child, by Jonathan Price

This week a rather affecting poem by Jonathan Price (1931-1985) that contrasts the ease with which small children express their affections with the inhibitions that adults sometimes bring to the task. On this note I remember how when my daughter was five, and had just discovered the fascination of large numbers, I was for some reason explaining to her the plot of ‘King Lear’, and she couldn’t understand why Cordelia wouldn’t simply tell her daddy that she loved him. ‘I would have said I loved you one thousand and forty nine’, she said. I was touched; admittedly I couldn’t help feeling that this was a bit low on the scale according to which she had previously claimed to love strawberries ‘one hundred million trillion and one’, but it’d do to be going on with.

Jonathan Price was loosely associated with the nineteen-fifties Movement poets, and his work was praised by Philip Larkin. An exacting craftsman, he published very little, and the collected poems, entitled ‘Everything Must Go’, that appeared towards the end of his life comprise just thirty-four pieces. Perhaps as a result he is pretty much forgotten: he deserves better.

A Considered Reply to a Child

‘I love you,’ you said between two mouthfuls of pudding.
But not funny; I didn’t want to laugh at all.
Rolling three years’ experience in a ball,
You nudged it friendlily across the table.

A stranger, almost, I was flattered – no kidding.
It’s not every day I hear a thing like that;
And when I do my answer’s never pat.
I’m about nine times your age, ten times less able

To say – what you said; incapable of unloading
Plonk at someone’s feet, like a box of bricks,
A declaration. When I try, it sticks
Like fish-bones in my throat; my eyes tingle.

What’s called ‘passion’, you’ll learn, may become ‘overriding’.
But not in me it doesn’t: I’m that smart,
I can give everything and keep my heart.
Kisses are kisses. No need for souls to mingle.

Bed’s bed, what’s more, and you’d say it’s meant for sleeping;
And, believe me, you’d be absolutely right.
With luck you’ll never lie awake all night,
Someone beside you (rather like ‘crying’) weeping.

Jonathan Price

Week 512: The Day He Died, by Ted Hughes

This is a companion piece to ‘Now You Have To Push’ that I featured way back in week 4, another of the elegies written in remembrance of Ted Hughes’s father-in-law Jack Orchard, and appearing in the collection ‘Moortown’, the first half of which contains for me some of Ted’s best work. I think these elegies derive their unusual power from the way the poet manages to fuse the portrayal of a entirely real man with the sense of something legendary, some guardian spirit of the land. Ted was that rare thing, a mythopoet fast rooted in the actual.

The Day He Died

Was the silkiest day of the young year,
The first reconnaissance of the real spring,
The first confidence of the sun.

That was yesterday. Last night, frost.
And as hard as any of all winter.
Mars and Saturn and the Moon dangling in a bunch
On the hard, littered sky.
Today is Valentine’s day.

Earth toast-crisp. The snowdrops battered.
Thrushes spluttering. Pigeons gingerly
Rubbing their voices together, in stinging cold.
Crows creaking, and clumsily
Cracking loose.

The bright fields look dazed.
Their expression is changed.
They have been somewhere awful
And come back without him.

The trustful cattle, with frost on their backs,
Waiting for hay, waiting for warmth,
Stand in a new emptiness.

From now on the land
Will have to manage without him.
But it hesitates, in this slow realization of light,
Childlike, too naked, in a frail sun,
With roots cut
And a great blank in its memory.

Ted Hughes

Week 511: Sad Steps, by Philip Larkin

A lot of people seem to be celebrating the centenary of the birth of Philip Larkin, so I thought this week I’d add my twopenceworth.

Some of the celebration, it must be admitted, is a little guarded. When Andre Gide was asked who he thought was the greatest French writer of the nineteenth century, he is said to have answered ‘Victor Hugo, hélas’ (Victor Hugo, alas). In the same spirit, some people asked to name the best English poet of the second half of the twentieth century wish to add a ‘hélas’ to the name of Larkin. I suppose one can see why – as a role model for poetic skill and integrity he is superb, as a role model for social attitudes less so ­– but I can’t be bothered with such niggardliness: let’s just give the man his due. My choice this week is perhaps not one of Larkin’s very best poems, but it’s a very characteristic one that unites a skilful and pleasure-giving verbal surface with a moving and memorable insight into the human condition.

True, I find the register of the opening line a little jarring, but then I feel a bit prissy for feeling that. After all, one does grope back to a bed after a piss, and there should be nothing wrong with saying so in a poem, except that Larkin takes perhaps slightly too mischievous a delight in occasionally subverting his readers’ more genteel expectations.

Moving on from that minor cognitive dissonance on my part, one is soon on surer ground with eight lines that capture beautifully the kind of nocturnal scene that must be familiar to all of us, or at least to all of us who bother to look out of the window at night. I love that ‘loosely as cannon-smoke’, that ‘stone-coloured light’. The fourth stanza then strikes a slightly odd and discordant note, but I take Larkin to be sending up the kind of pretentious apostrophe to the moon that might be indulged in by more affected poets – an indulgence that he then rejects with a firm ‘No’, confronting us with the chilling recognition of an inhuman reality that cares nothing for us, yet has power to evoke in us our own all too human feelings of loss and regret. It’s a characteristically bleak ending, yet there is a kind of exhilaration here too, as if the poet were in some way relishing that inhumanness, that otherness of the scene, for the way it absorbs him, temporarily unburdening him of his own identity. As he remarks in another poem, ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’.

In one way, Larkin’s poems don’t need a lot of working at, since what he says is usually perfectly clear to any competent reader, one of the things that no doubt contributes to his popularity with the general reading public. But at the same time it is possible to go back to his poems and appreciate them a little more each time for the pleasure of their art and the quality of their insight. Clarity of thought, accuracy of observation, felicity of expression: these are what make poetry, and these at his best is what Larkin gives you.

The title, incidentally, is taken from one of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets in the sequence ‘Astrophel and Stella’: ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!’

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by 
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate— 
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Philip Larkin

Week 510: Never Any Good With Money, by Martin Simpson

This week’s piece was written by the folk artist Martin Simpson, and appears on his album ‘Prodigal Son’. As poetry it may be a bit rough and ready (and of course it’s better with the music), yet I find it very moving in the way it speaks for a whole generation of fragile, unfulfilled, war-torn twentieth-century lives, and also portrays a father-son relationship that will resonate with many. Certainly I see in his portrayal much of my own kindly but improvident father, a man who was deeply unsettled by any surplus funds that came his way and disposed of them as quickly as possible in slot machines or by improbable bets with the local bookmaker. Money, in the phrase of the time, ‘burned a hole in his pocket’, and this left my much thriftier mother to keep the family finances just about afloat, which she did by squirrelling away small sums from her meagre weekly housekeeping allowance into a complex system of secret purses hidden around the house. Thus, when a big bill like the annual rates came around (this being nominally my father’s responsibility) and he professed himself unable to pay it, she would produce her ‘rates purse’ with a triumphant flourish and the words ‘You’d better have this then!’. At which he would say, ‘Well, girl, what a good little manager you are!’, and she would glow with pride. Yes, I know – modern women everywhere will be tearing their hair out, but what can I say: it was a different world back then; he loved her and he played her and when he died of cancer at seventy after a lifetime’s heavy smoking she mourned him every day for twenty-three years.

‘Not hard enough for the hod’: not tough enough for physical labour, such as on a building site.
‘Norton’: a long-established make of motorcycle, much esteemed by some even if, according to the song, ‘they don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52’.
‘Split cane rod’: a kind of fly-fishing rod made of bamboo; I’m no angler but I believe these would now be regarded as a bit vintage, having been replaced by more modern materials such as carbon fibre.
‘Pirate King’: a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.
’Fulmars’:  a genus of seabirds, breeding on cliffs and superficially resembling gulls.
’Eyebright’ a wildflower of the Euphrasia genus, formerly used to treat eye infections.
’Traveller’s Joy’: another name for the woody hedgerow climber wild clematis.

Never Any Good With Money

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When your grammar school days were over
It was nineteen-seventeen
And you did the right and proper thing
You were just eighteen.
You were never mentioned in dispatches
You never mentioned what you did or saw,
You were just another keen young man
In the mud and stink of war.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be singing the ‘Pirate King’
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You came home from the Great War
With the pips of a Captain’s rank,
A German officer’s Luger
And no money in the bank.
Your family sent you down the coal mine
To learn to be Captain there
But you didn’t stand it very long
You needed the light and the air.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be watching the fulmars fly
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When the second war came along
You knew what should be done
You would reenlist to teach young men
The booby trap and the gun
And they sent you home to Yorkshire
With a crew and a Lewis gun
So you could save your seaside town
From the bombers of the Hun.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be finding the nightjar’s nest
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

And when my mother came to your door
With a baby in her arms,
Her big hurt boy, just nine years old,
Trying to keep her from harm,
If you had been a practical man
You would have been forewarned,
You would have seen that it never could work
And I would have never been born.

There’s no proper work in your seaside town
So you come here looking for a job,
You were storeman at the power station
Just before I came along.
Nobody talked about how you quit
But I know that’s what you did.
My mother said you were a selfish man
And I was your selfish kid.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
And your Norton it was soon gone
Along with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You showed me Eyebright in the hedgerow,
Speedwell and Traveller’s Joy,
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature’s ways,
The greatest gifts I have ever known
And I use them every day.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office maybe
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

Martin Simpson

Week 509: A Prospect of Death, by Andrew Young

This week an uncharacteristically self-revealing piece by the Scots poet Andrew Young (1885-1971), who is best known for his keen-eyed and idiosyncratic celebrations of the natural world – see, for example, week 19’s ‘The Sheaf’. But here he opens up emotionally in a way that may remind one of the later Hardy, except that the wife being ruefully addressed is still alive. It appears from Young’s biography (written jointly by his daughter and his son–in-law, the poet Edward Lowbury) that he was a complex man, subject to depressions, who could be warm and witty but could also be domineering and capable of unkindness. Well, maybe we all approach the end of our lives knowing that there have been times when we have failed of our charity, and hearing that ‘voice from the green-grained sticks of the fire’ that Hardy speaks of in his poem ‘Surview’:

You taught not that which you set about,’
Said my own voice talking to me;
‘That the greatest of things is Charity…’

And while a poem like this may not be much of an amends, one likes to think that it is something.

A Prospect of Death

If it should come to this
You cannot wake me with a kiss,
Think I but sleep too late
Or once again keep a cold angry state.

So now you have been told; —
I or my breakfast may grow cold,
But you must only say
‘Why does he miss the best part of the day?’

Even then you may be wrong;
Through woods torn by a blackbird’s song
My thoughts may often roam
While graver business make me stay at home.

There will be time enough
To go back to the earth I love
Some other day that week,
Perhaps to find what all my life I seek.

So do not dream of danger;
Forgive my lateness or my anger;
You have so much forgiven,
Forgive me this or that, or Hell or Heaven.

Andrew Young

Week 508: Her Strong Enchantments Failing, by A.E.Housman

The A.E. Housman psychodrama, featuring a somewhat romanticised stoicism or defiance of a hostile or at best uncaring universe, may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it has to be admitted that it finds a perfect expression in poems like this where he is able to harness the power of myth in the service of his own inner conflict.

I say ‘myth’, but there is a bit of a puzzle here. I had always assumed that the title of the mysterious and sinister ‘Queen of air and darkness’ was a traditional one – that Housman, renowned for his classical scholarship, was drawing on some appellation of, for example, Hecate, the goddess of the witches. The Wikipedia entry, however, identifies her with Morgause, the enchantress of Arthurian legend who is (unknown to him) Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of the ‘Orkney faction’, comprising Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. But this identification, I suspect, may be based purely on the work of T.H.White, who used it as the title of one of the books in his Arthurian quartet, and White may simply have taken the title from the Housman poem.

In short, I have been unable to find the phrase ‘queen of air and darkness’ existing before Housman, so suspect it is his own resonant invention, though no doubt inspired by traditional lore in some form. Do let me know if you can cast any further light on the matter.

‘limbecks’: a variant of ‘alembic’,  a kind of alchemist’s still, consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for the distillation of liquids.

‘towers of fear’: possibly an echo here of the Dark Tower in Browning’s poem, to which Childe Roland came. The poem, of course, predates Tolkien and his version of the Dark Tower, Barad-dûr.

Her strong enchantments failing

Her strong enchantments failing,
  Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
  And the knife at her neck,

The Queen of air and darkness
  Begins to shrill and cry,
‘O young man, O my slayer,
  To-morrow you shall die.’

O Queen of air and darkness,
  I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die to-morrow;
  But you will die to-day.

A.E. Housman

Week 507: My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear, by Charles Causley

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of the language and metric: this is a poem raw with anger and pity, that puts one somewhat in mind of Blake in his more lucid moments.

My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly!’ ‘Somersault!’

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

Charles Causley