Week 402: Prayer Before Birth, by Louis MacNeice

This poem was written in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and has the fearful and claustrophobic quality of those times, yet it may seem just as relevant today, when we have new perils and new tyrannies of thought to contend with, and when those of us who feel we have, as it turned out, been lucky enough in our time of birth to have lived through the late afternoon of a still decent country may be just as apprehensive now as MacNeice was then about the kind of world that we are leaving our grandchildren and their children to grow up in.

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis MacNeice

Week 401: The River, by Bruce Springsteen

I believe that the singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen is most associated with the genre of music known as rock. This is not a genre I am familiar with, so I cannot say whether this particular song about the death of young dreams belongs to it, but I can say that I think the lyrics, even without Bruce to belt them out, make an effective poem – a bit roughhewn maybe, but poignantly sincere. Evidently Bruce wrote it following conversations he had with his brother-in-law, after the latter lost his job and went through hard times trying to provide his family.

The River

I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

Bruce Springsteen

Week 400: The Collar-bone of a Hare, by W.B.Yeats

This may seem a strange little poem, though memorable by virtue of being suffused with the inimitable Yeats music. What’s all this about making a hole in the collar-bone of a hare? I believe that here Yeats is using, or adapting, a folktale motif: there are old Highland stories in which finding a stone with a hole in it and looking through it grants the finder the ability to pierce any disguise and see things as they truly are. And I think the poem is inspired by Yeats’s longing for an older, different order of things, for the Ireland of legend or, as he puts in his preface to Lady Gregory’s ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’, for ‘that Cruachan of the enchantments that lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills’.

The Collar-bone of a Hare

Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water

The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare.


Week 399: The Bonny Earl of Moray, by Anon

This popular ballad, Child 181, probably dates from the 17th century and is based on a historical incident. James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Lord Doune) was suspected by James VI of Scotland of having been involved with the Earl of Bothwell in an attempt on the king’s life. He issued a warrant for Moray’s arrest in 1592, charging George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly, with carrying it out. Huntly had a long-standing feud with Moray and took the opportunity, rather than arrest Moray, to kill him outside Moray’s castle in Fife. According to the ballad, James felt that Huntly had exceeded his brief, though he took no action against him.

The song is incidentally famous for having given rise to the term ‘mondegreen’ for a misheard song lyric. This was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final two lines of the first verse as ‘they have slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.’ She said that she always imagined the Earl dying beside his faithful lover ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and refused to hear the real words, because they were less romantic than her misheard version.

I have often wished that there could be a comparable term based not a mishearing but on a possible misunderstanding or over-interpretation of a line that goes beyond anything intended by the poet. For example, when I first read A.E.Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ and came to the lines ‘They tolled the one bell only/Groom was there none to see’ I read it with an emphasis on the ‘see’, which gave me a shiver as I imagined an invisible figure of Death stalking beside the coffin like a bridegroom. But it seems quite possible that this conceit never entered Housman’s mind. Ah well, another one for the Elysian fields. ‘Hey, Alfred, you know that poem of yours…’

Like all ballads it is best heard with its tune: there is a good version by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Bonny Earl of Moray

Ye Hielands an ye Lowlands
O, whaur hae ye been
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And lain him on the green.

Now wae betide thee, Huntly
And whaurfor did ye sae?
I hae bade ye bring him wi ye
But forbade ye him tae slay.

He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he might hae been a king!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the ba’;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray
Was the flower amang them a’!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the gluve;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he was the Queen’s luve!

O lang will his Lady
Look owre the Castle Downe,
Ere she see the Earl o’ Moray
Come sounding through the town!


Week 398: She Moved Through The Fair, by Anon/Padraic Colum

This is in my view one of the most beautiful of all folksongs. It began life as a traditional Irish air of some antiquity, and at least the words of the last verse are traditional; the first three verses are said to have been composed by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, though again based to some extent on traditional lyrics. Colum definitely added the third verse, though, to make it clear, he said, that the bride had died before her wedding-day: this verse seems a bit redundant and is often omitted in performance.

It has been covered by countless professional folk singers, usually with an instrumental accompaniment. Yet one of the most moving versions I have ever heard was an a cappella performance by an unnamed young woman in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, part of a remembrance service for victims of the Omagh bombing, as featured in the BBC’s ‘Soul Music’ series which devotes a whole program to the song.

She Moved Through The Fair

My young love said to me, ‘My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind’
And she stepped away from me and this she did say:
‘It will not be long, love, till our wedding day’

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her move here and move there
Until she turned homeward with one star awake
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake

All of the people were saying, ‘No two ever wed,
But one had a sorrow that never was said’,
But she smiled as she passed me with her goods and her gear
And that was the last time that I saw my dear.

Last night she came to me, my young love came in,
So softly she entered her feet made no din
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say
‘It will not be long, love, ’til our wedding day’

Anon/Padraic Colum

Week 397: ‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes…’ by John Clare

This week’s offering is from the writings of the peasant poet John Clare (1793-1864). Edward Thomas famously said of Robert Frost’s work ‘It is poetry because it is better than prose’; I suppose one might say of this passage that it is prose because it is not quite as good as poetry, yet surely it runs it pretty close, and I am not sure that the distinction is even a useful one in cases like this. It is interesting to set it against the famous passage from Thomas Traherne (see week 390), and to consider how much more (literally) down to earth Clare is. Personally I prefer the Clare.

‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circles round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.’

John Clare

Week 396: Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy, by C. Day-Lewis

It is Thomas Hardy’s birthday next Tuesday (June 2nd) so this tribute seems a fitting choice. It is cleverly couched in Hardy’s own idiom, and has a generosity of spirit not always apparent among poets. But Hardy does appear to have this knack of inspiring an unusual level of affection in his readers, and if, reading his biography, one sometimes suspects that he poured the best wine of his spirit into his work and had only the lees left for the other people in his life, well, he’s not the first artist of whom this could be said. What did Yeats say? ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work’. (It is entirely possible, of course, to fall well short of perfection in both…)

Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy

Is it birthday weather for you, dear soul?
Is it fine your way,
With tall moon-daisies alight, and the mole
Busy, and elegant hares at play
By meadow paths where once you would stroll
In the flush of day?

I fancy the beasts and flowers there beguiled
By a visitation
That casts no shadow, a friend whose mild
Inquisitive glance lights with compassion,
Beyond the tomb, on all of this wild
And humbled creation.

It’s hard to believe a spirit could die
Of such generous glow,
Or to doubt that somewhere a bird-sharp eye
Still broods on the capers of men below,
A stern voice asks the Immortals why
They should plague us so.

Dear poet, wherever you are, I greet you.
Much irony, wrong,
Innocence you’d find here to tease or entreat you,
And many the fate-fires have tempered strong,
But none that in ripeness of soul could meet you
Or magic of song.

Great brow, frail form—gone.  Yet you abide
In the shadow and sheen,
All the mellowing traits of a countryside
That nursed your tragi-comical scene;
And in us, warmer-hearted and brisker-eyed
Since you have been.

C. Day-Lewis

Week 395: Tall Nettles, by Edward Thomas

I imagine that those brought up to think that a poem must always mean something beyond itself may find this little piece, together with why I find it so satisfying, somewhat puzzling. ‘Yes, but what do the nettles represent?’, they may ask. Nothing, so far as I know: they are just nettles in their own right, a humble and easily overlooked part of the creation, but this time they have been seen, and the poetry is in the seeing. It is as Thomas himself observed of his hero Richard Jefferies: ‘To see… as clearly as he saw the sun-painted yellowhammer in Stewart’s Mash is an office of the imagination’. And when it results in observation as affectionately meticulous as that in the last three lines of this poem, it is no mean office either.

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas

Week 394: Appeals, by David Sutton

It’s a bad time for charities, this lockdown, and there seem to be even more good causes than usual needing help. One feels one should be doing something, and of course many people are. My daughter recently finished a sponsored ascent of her stairs 3204 times in 22 hours to equal the height of Everest, my son-in-law has done a sponsored half-marathon in his back garden. All a bit energetic for me now. I wondered if I could perhaps get people to sponsor me to write a poem, but it was put to me that I would probably have more luck getting people to sponsor me not to write a poem. So I have contented myself with at least digging out this one that I wrote years ago, but which now has sadly gained fresh relevance.

Note: I am aware that the term ‘spastics’ is no longer considered correct, but back when I wrote the poem it was simply the normal word for the condition: one made out cheques to The Spastics Society, which did not change its name to Scope until 1994. I don’t know how far poets can reasonably be expected to revise their work when the rug of language is pulled from under them – it’s a tricky one!


Almost daily the world
Bleeds through my letter-box. On the mat each morning
I find fresh gouts: blind babies, orphans, spastics,
The deaf, the lonely old, ill-treated pets,
Blue whales, otters, donkeys. . . Donkeys? Well,
Why not; in indiscriminate despair
I scribble out the breakfast cheques, each careful
Conscience-minimum. Now world, will you
Leave me alone today? Will someone else
Apply these scraps of dressing? But the blood
Seeps through, it stains my fingers, sometimes at night
Becomes a bright unlaunderable flood.
Can’t someone tell them I’ve a life to lead?
Just so, they murmur, drawing off, and bleed.

David Sutton

Week 393: Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, by Charles Causley

I thought this week’s piece might be appropriate at a time when with any luck patients in hospital will soon be allowed visitors again, though if Charles Causley’s wryly observed poem is anything to go by, this can be a mixed blessing…

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor


The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.


The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
‘Shove off! Shove off!
‘Shove … shove … shove … shove
Just you


The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.


The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
‘They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
‘Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
‘You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
‘Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –

Which, alas, seems to be the case.


The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.


The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding


The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.


The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
‘To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.


The ninth visitor is life.


The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Charles Causley