Week 381: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

This is a famous and in my view somewhat misunderstood poem, the misunderstanding being entirely the fault of the poet. Robert Frost liked to put it about that this was a playful poem written to tease his friend Edward Thomas, who was, it seems, given to reflecting ruefully on the choice of path after one of their country walks together and saying now if only they’d gone the other way… In particular the last line, Frost claimed, was an ironic joke at Thomas’s expense and not to be taken literally. Thomas did indeed take the tease seriously and was apparently quite perturbed by the poem, but to me all this was just Frost putting up a smokescreen: clearly the poem is about him and not Thomas, the road less taken is the path of poetry, and there is no reason not to take the last line at face value: our life choices do indeed make a difference. I’m afraid Frost liked to play these games, maybe from a wish to disguise the act of self-revelation, or from a fear of committing himself too deeply to his own truth, or just from a mischievous sense of fun. Which doesn’t make it any less of a fine poem.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Week 380: The Cool Web, by Robert Graves

I think this is the kind of poem that shows Robert Graves at his best as a lucid yet profound explorer of the human psyche. This one is always associated in my mind with the time my small son, then not quite two, was toddling down the garden path when he suddenly started crying inconsolably, shaking and pointing at something in the border. I hurried to him thinking he must have been stung by a bee, but then saw a small yellow frog hopping away into the undergrowth. ‘It’s just a little frog, it won’t hurt you’, I reassured him. He relaxed visibly. ‘Fwog’, he said, and I thought this is it, the cool web at work, another piece of the world’s strangeness and otherness named, tamed, pigeonholed, filed away. And paradoxically, it is part of the role of poetry to undo that naming and taming, to make us see again that disconcerting otherness and strangeness. Not that I want us to be terrified of frogs, you understand…

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves

Week 379: November Surf, by Robinson Jeffers

This is an uneasy poem for those of us who like to think of ourselves as humane liberals. We may be aware that a lot of the earth’s problems are caused by overpopulation, but we don’t want anyone to actually die – just go a bit easy on the procreation thing, eh guys? Robinson Jeffers made no pretence of being a humane liberal and seems to be foreseeing, with some relish, a more decisive solution to our problems, though the exact nature of the storm that the future is preparing for us is not specified. Take your pick…

November Surf

Some lucky day each November great waves awake and are drawn
Like smoking mountains bright from the west
And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
The old granite forgets half a year’s filth:
The orange-peel, eggshells, papers, pieces of clothing, the clots
Of dung in corners of the rock, and used
Sheaths that make light love safe in the evenings: all the droppings of the summer
Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy:
I think this cumbered continent envies its cliff then. . . . But all seasons
The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:
The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two-footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

Robinson Jeffers

Week 378: John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

I confess to having a soft spot for this week’s cheerfully disreputable piece. OK, I’m not sure that the Irish Catholic Church would have approved of John Kinsella’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards familial ties, and I suppose I shouldn’t either, but it’s good fun, and it does show Yeats’s unusual range as a poet – it’s a long way from this sort of thing to poems like ‘Easter 1916’.

John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

A bloody and a sudden end,
Gunshot or a noose,
For Death who takes what man would keep,
Leaves what man would lose.
He might have had my sister,
My cousins by the score,
But nothing satisfied the fool
But my dear Mary Moore,
None other knows what pleasures man
At table or in bed.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

Though stiff to strike a bargain,
Like an old Jew man,
Her bargain struck we laughed and talked
And emptied many a can;
And O! but she had stories,
Though not for the priest’s ear,
To keep the soul of man alive,
Banish age and care,
And being old she put a skin
On everything she said.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

The priests have got a book that says
But for Adam’s sin
Eden’s Garden would be there
And I there within.
No expectation fails there,
No pleasing habit ends,
No man grows old, no girl grows cold
But friends walk by friends.
Who quarrels over halfpennies
That plucks the trees for bread?
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?
 

W.B.Yeats

Week 377: The Old Couple, by F. Pratt Green

A poem that in its theme and sad tenderness is reminiscent of Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘One Flesh’ (see week 23), though it incorporates more in the way of social detail. Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was a Methodist minister perhaps best known as a writer of hymns.

The Old Couple

The old couple in the brand-new bungalow,
Gagged with the milk of municipal kindness,
Fumble their way to bed. Oldness at odds
With newness, they nag each other to show
Nothing is altered, despite the strangeness
Of being divorced in sleep by twin-beds,
Side by side like the Departed, above them
The grass-green of candlewick bedspreads.

In a dead neighbourhood, where it is rare
For hooligans to shout or dogs to bark,
A footfall in the quiet air is crisper
Than home-made bread; and the budgerigar
Bats an eyelid, as sensitive to disturbance
As a distant needle is to an earthquake
In the Great Deep, then balances in sleep.
It is silence keeps the old couple awake.

Too old for loving now, but not for love,
The old couple lie, several feet apart,
Their chesty breathing like a muted duet
On wind instruments, trying to think of
Things to hang on to, such as the tinkle
That a budgerigar makes when it shifts
Its feather weight from one leg to another,
The way, on windy nights, linoleum lifts.

F. Pratt Green

Week 376: The Toome Road, by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is not, I think, a difficult poet, unlike, say, his contemporary Geoffrey Hill who chose to guard his word-hoard with dragons of impassable obscurity. But Heaney did select his words very carefully, and that care merits close attention, as in this poem expressing his feelings of resentment at the presence in his countryside of what to him were after all, regardless of what his political sympathies might be, soldiers of an occupying power. That ‘omphalos’, for example – the omphalos (Greek for navel) was a stone at Delphi that in Greek lore had been placed there by Zeus to mark the centre of the world, and is here used by Heaney as a quietly defiant symbol of the farmland on which his own being was centred, and which is here evoked with a bleakly beautiful precision. I am also fascinated by his choice of the word ‘warbling’ in the second line. Quite right for the sound of heavy tyres, but I just wonder also whether Seamus also had in mind some association with the warble fly, a parasitic fly that burrows under the skin of cattle and lays its eggs – maybe he was thinking of these foreign invaders as resembling such parasites, burrowing under the skin of his countryside? Of course, it is easy to get carried away with this kind of thing – when I was young there was a critical work very much in vogue called ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, which one reviewer tartly dismissed as carrying the remarkable thesis that the more ways there were to misunderstand a poem, the better it was. Anyway, to the poem….

The Toome Road

One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all of those with their back doors on the latch
For the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones…
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.

Seamus Heaney

Week 375: Nottamun Town, by Anon

I can’t say that I have ever been a fan of nonsense verse – as a child I felt rather strongly that you could take your Snark and Boojum and stuff ‘em up your Jumblies – but this strange antique piece, possibly dating from the Middle Ages, is rather different. There is a line in ‘King Lear’ where the disguised Kent observes to Lear ‘This is not altogether fool, my Lord’, and in the same way I feel that this is not altogether a nonsense poem, though I can’t claim to have the key to it. One theory links it to the mediaeval Feast of Fools or to mummers’ plays, another to the ‘World Turned Upside Down’ theme popular with pamphleteers at the time of the English Civil War. I feel myself that while it may be social commentary, it also carries a strong personal note of alienation and despair at the world’s folly.

The poem exists in many somewhat different versions: the one I present here is mainly from the singing of the English folk artist Shirley Collins..

Nottamun Town

In Nottamun Town, in Nottamun Town
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

I rode a big horse that was called a grey mare
Grey mane and grey tail, green stripes down her back
Grey mane and grey tail, green stripes down her back
There weren’t a hair on her that was not coal black

She stood so still threw me to the dirt
She tore at my hide, she bruised my shirt
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain

And the King and the Queen and a company more
Came a-riding behind and a-walking before
Then a stark naked drummer came marching along
With his hands in his bosom a-beating a drum

They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay
They talked all the while, not a word they did say
I called for a cup to drive gladness away
And stifle the dust for it rained the whole day

Sat down on a hard hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me yet I was alone
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born

Anon