Week 392: An Eala Bhàn, by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

These are verses from a longer poem in Scots Gaelic, written by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Donald Macdonald) (1887-1967) during the Battle of the Somme. It is addressed to the sweetheart he had left at home, Magaidh NicLeòid (Maggie MacLeod), the ‘white swan’ of the title. The poem has none of the righteous anger of Owen and Sassoon, just resignation and the ache of longing for a life left behind, sentiments that must have been much more typical of the common soldier in the trenches.

It has been set to music and was sung, very beautifully, by Julie Fowlis, at the Thiepval Memorial Service on July 1st, 2016: you can hear this on YouTube, as you can another haunting version by Karen Matheson. We owe so much to singers like this who are doing their best to keep alive the Gaelic language with all its rich heritage of song and poetry.

The translation that follows is my own.

An Eala Bhàn

Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘S mo chridhe ‘n sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi
Beanntan àrd a’cheò
Gleanntannan a’mhànrain
Nan loch, nam bàgh, ‘s nan stròm
‘S an eala bhàn ‘tha tamh ann
Gach là air ‘m bheil mi’n tòir

A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach
A rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh
A mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uileadh ach air chuairt
Mar dhìthein buaile fàs
Bheir siantannan na bhliadhna sìos
‘S nach tog a’ghrian an àird.

*****************************

Oidhche mhath leat fhéin, a rùin
Nad leabaidh chùbhraidh bhlàth
Cadal sàmhach air a chùl
Do dhùsgadh sunndach slàn
Tha mise ‘seo ‘san truinnsidh fhuair
Nam chluaisean fuaim a bhàis
Gun dùil ri faighinn às le buaidh
Tha’n cuan cho buan ri shnàmh

Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

The White Swan

There is a sadness in my state
My heart cannot resist,
Not since the very hour I left
The high peaks in the mist,
Not since I left the little glens,
The lochs and bays behind,
And you, the white swan living there,
Who’s never from my mind.

O Maggie, don’t be sorrowful
If I should not survive.
We journey on: what man can stay
Eternally alive?
Like flowers in a deserted fold
We flourish, till the rain
Beats down our little span of life.
We do not bloom again.

*****************************

And now goodnight to you, my love,
In your warm scented bed.
May you sleep peacefully and wake
In health and clear of head,
While I am here in this cold trench,
No quiet rest for me,
Nor hope of home, for who can swim
Across so wide a sea.

Week 391: Album, by R.S.Thomas

The other day my wife and I were looking at our wedding photos from fifty-four years ago, and reflecting on the fact that most of the people in them are now dead. (So important to stay cheerful during lockdown…) Well, I suppose it is obvious that for most of us, if we live long enough, there comes a point at which, of all the people we have known in our lives, more are now dead than are still living – it just takes a photograph album to bring it home to one. And this in turn reminded me of this rueful poem by R.S.Thomas.

Note the scrupulously truthful ‘bandaged’ in the last stanza. Not a glib ‘healed’ – anyone who has lost a child or partner may tell you that not all wounds are healed by time. Just bandaged, covered, the way a smile may cover grief.

Album

My father is dead.
I who am look at him
who is not, as once he
went looking for me
in the woman who was.

There are pictures
of the two of them, no
need of a third, hand
in hand, hearts willing
to be one but not three.

What does it mean
life? I am here I am
there. Look! Suddenly
the young tool in their hands
for hurting one another.

And the camera says:
Smile; there is no wound
time gives that is not bandaged
by time. And so they do the
three of them at me who weep.

R.S.Thomas

Week 390: ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat’ by Thomas Traherne

This passage from ‘Centuries of Meditation’ by the English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) has become famous, though Traherne’s work didn’t attract much notice till the twentieth century. I like it, but I think there is a temptation for writers to project back on to themselves as children more poetic sensibility than they actually had at the time, and wonder if this is not such a case. In my experience small children tend to be of a fairly practical turn of mind, and Hardy comes nearer the mark when he says, in a poem recalling his own childhood, ‘Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away!’. I well remember a walk in a spring wood with my own small daughter when she was two. ‘I know’, I said, taking out my notebook and pencil. ‘Let’s sit on this log and you tell Daddy what interesting things you can see and he’ll write them down in his book’. She obligingly sat down and thought. I waited expectantly, trying to imagine myself into her world of unsullied perception. What would it be? Something about the dance of the light on the leaves, the bluebells stretching away all round us under the beech trees? Eventually she delivered. ‘Beth can see pencil!’, she said.

‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God’.

Thomas Traherne

* ‘proprieties’ here has its older meaning of ‘properties’.

Week 389: The Echoing Green, by William Blake

This seemingly naïve pastoral is not perhaps in the visionary vein one usually associates with Blake, yet I feel it has acquired a peculiar poignancy in these days of social isolation – certainly my own local Echoing Green is eerily deserted these days – no sport, no teenagers in convivial huddles on the benches, even a lock on the children’s playground in the corner.

I wonder, incidentally, what a village green would have looked like in Blake’s time. Probably rather different from our own mowed and manicured areas with their cricket squares, football pitches, swings and climbing frames. Was football even played on a pitch then? – I have an idea that it was more a mob-handed affair ranging over open fields between two sides intent on doing as much damage to each other as possible and never mind the ball (OK, not much change there then). Certainly I know my own local green is all that remains of a great wild common, a favourite haunt of early botanists, stretching right up to the edge of the woods over acres long gone under housing estates.

The Echoing Green

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John, with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.’

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

William Blake

Week 388: The Oracles, by A.E.Housman

A.E.Housman’s philosophy of stoic defiance in the face of adversity found perfect expression in the closing stanza of this poem with its celebration of the Spartan resistance at Thermopylae to the invading Persian army of Xerxes. It is, of course, not without irony that these warriors of a grim, unlovely and anything but democratic society should have come to stand as the ultimate symbol of democratic resistance to tyranny, but still, courage is courage, and it stirs and inspires us. Just as, in a more humane form, it stirs and inspires us today as our doctors, nurses and a volunteer army make their Spartan stand against another enemy out of the East.

Dodona, in a remote region of Greece, was the site of one of the main Greek oracles, second only to the one at Delphi. Rulers and heroes would make their way there to consult with the priestess before major enterprises, though the answers they got tended to be so unhelpfully ambiguous that one wonders why they bothered.

Why ‘benight the air’? The story in Herodotus goes that the Spartans were told how the archers of the Persian host discharged enough arrows to blot out the sun, to which their laconic reply was ‘Good, then we shall be fighting in the shade’.

The Oracles

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain.
When winds were in oakenshaws the and all the cauldrons tolled.
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain.
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that dies must drink it;
And oh, my lass the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

A.E.Housman

Week 387: From ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ by Anthony Trollope

Minimal going out and no social contact, and now the libraries have closed – what does one do in this time of plague? Well, for one thing it’s a chance to reread some favourite novels rather than always having something new on the go. So… not ‘Middlemarch’, I listened to that as an audio book only a few weeks ago. ‘Anna Karenina’? Perhaps something a little more upbeat: things do not (spoiler alert!) end well for poor Anna. ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’? – well that at least, quite uncharacteristically for Hardy, has a happy ending, but let’s face it, Hardy completely loses interest in Gabriel and Bathsheba once their troubles are over, and so do we. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’? Great until John Fowles goes all modernist and plays silly b’s with the ending. ‘Sunset Song’? Wonderful, but now I recall I foolishly lent it to someone and never got it back. ‘Kim’? A possible, but I feel I need something nearer to home. No, I think the man for these times is Trollope, in particular his ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, which means that I shall be starting with ‘The Warden’ and so arriving in a week or two at that most naively touching of literary valedictions, the closing paragraph of ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’:

‘And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester. I may not venture to say to him that, in this country, he and I together have wandered often through the country lanes, and have ridden together in the too well-wooded fields, or have stood together in the cathedral nave listening to the peals of the organ, or have together sat at good men’s table, or have confronted together the angry pride of men who were not good. I may not boast that any beside myself have so realised the place, and the people, and the facts, as to make such reminiscences possible as those which I should attempt to evoke by an appeal to perfect fellowship. But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavements of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset.’

Anthony Trollope

Week 386: They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek, by Sir Thomas Wyatt

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t featured this week’s poem before: I must have thought it was too well known, but really it’s one of those poems that can’t be too well known, so it’s time to make amends. When so much of what passes for poetry is merely an exercise in the conventions of the age, to come across the true living voice is always startling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1593-1542) figures as a character in Hilary Mantel’s excellent ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy.

They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this’.

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Week 385: Rondeau de Printemps, by René Charles d’Orléans

A slight improvement this week in the miserable weather we have been having here of late, so I thought I would celebrate with this charming rondeau by the French duke-cum-poet René Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465). It captures some of the joy that people in the Middle Ages must have felt at the return of spring. And of course, for those of us who grew up in homes without central heating, the Middle Ages lasted well into the nineteen-fifties.

The translation that follows is my own.

Rondeau de printemps

Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie,
Et s’est vêtu de broderie,
De soleil luisant, clair et beau.

Il n’y a bête ni oiseau
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie.

Rivière, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent en livrée jolie
Gouttes d’argent, d’orfèvrerie;
Chacun s’habille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissé son manteau.

René Charles d’Orléans

Spring Rondeau

The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain
And robed itself in sunlight now,
All’s radiance again.

There’s not a bird and not a beast
But echoes the refrain:
The season has put off its wear
Of wind and cold and rain

While river, brook and fountain bear
A liquid livery
Of silver and gold filigree;
So one and all, new clad, declare
The season has put off its wear.

Week 384: Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, by Louis Simpson

This poem by the American poet Louis Simpson (1923-2012) seems to be primarily about disillusionment with the American way of life, though it ends on a note of apparent hope. I really like it for its lyricism, but am aware that as an English reader I am almost certainly missing some of its cultural nuances. For one thing, I am not even sure exactly what the ‘American dream’ is. Opening your own fast-food joint? Getting a cameo role in The Simpsons? Coming over here, marrying one of our princes and carting him off to Canada? Whatever it is, the poet clearly feels that it has led his people down the wrong road, and that the nation they were promised has become lost in a rising tide of uncaring consumerism: ‘The Open Road goes to the used-car lot’, and only poets stop to read inscriptions. But then there is a change of mood that seems to stem from a feeling of being released from the burden of expectation: ‘All that grave weight of America/Cancelled’. The last line, ‘Dances like Italy, imagining red’, is a resounding one but I have to confess I don’t understand it. Why Italy? Why red? Sorry, Louis Simpson, but I need a bit of help with this one. Still think it’s a fine poem though.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.

‘Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

‘Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
Colossal snows,
And the light above the street is sick to death.

‘As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.’

‘I am here’, he answered.
‘It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?

I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.’
Then, vastly amused – ‘Why do you reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.’
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing …

Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Official scenarios,
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
American dreams.

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.

All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and the roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there…

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Louis Simpson

Week 383: On Teaching The Young, by Yvor Winters

I think it is possible to admire a poem for its clarity and eloquence while remaining sceptical of its assertions. This is certainly the case for me with this week’s offering by the American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968). ‘The poet’s only bliss/Is in cold certitude’ – now I would have thought that may be true of mathematicians, but that poets, like physicists and historians, have to rub along taking what satisfaction they can from the partial view and the provisional truth. And the tone jars a bit… Winters taught English at American universities and there is always the danger in that profession that a laudable desire to maintain standards will edge over into a joyless puritanical exclusiveness. At Cambridge I chose not to read English as a formal subject; if I had done so it would have been under the tutelage of the critic F.R.Leavis, then holding court at Downing College. Leavis was a man of considerable critical gifts, and his pronouncements were certainly worth attention as far as they went, but I don’t know, somehow he didn’t seem to have much fun. I have never felt qualified to teach anyone anything, but if I did I would say ‘There it is before you, the great ocean of world literature, just plunge in like a dolphin and follow your delight…’

On Teaching The Young

The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude –
Laurel, archaic, rude.

Yvor Winters