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


Week 374: Surprised by Joy, by William Wordsworth

This week I attended the funeral service of an ex-work colleague, dead before her sixtieth birthday. I know that perceptions of age are relative – nine-year-old Daisy Ashford in ‘The Young Visitors’ writes of ‘an elderly gentleman of 42’ – but certainly from my own present perspective fifty-nine seems way too young to die. Not, of course, as young as Wordsworth’s daughter, but still, it was his great poem of bereavement that came to my mind during the service, so I dedicate this week’s choice to the memory of one I knew as a lively young woman, and to her husband, left like Wordsworth without his ‘heart’s best treasure’.

Surprised by joy

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

William Wordsworth

Week 373: Seen by the Waits, by Thomas Hardy

One to get you in the mood for Christmas, though this being a Hardy poem it would be wise not to expect too much in the way of festive cheer. I like the fact that we are left to form our own conjecture as to exactly why the lady danced on hearing of her husband’s death. My money is on the realisation that it meant she wouldn’t have to spend another Christmas with her in-laws.

Seen By The Waits

Through snowy woods and shady
We went to play a tune
To the lonely manor-lady
By the light of the Christmas moon.

We violed till, upward glancing
To where a mirror leaned,
It showed her airily dancing,
Deeming her movements screened;

Dancing alone in the room there,
Thin-draped in her robe of night;
Her postures, glassed in the gloom there,
Were a strange phantasmal sight.

She had learnt (we heard when homing)
That her roving spouse was dead:
Why she had danced in the gloaming
We thought, but never said.

Thomas Hardy

Week 372: My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning

In this blog I have tried to be sparing in my use of standard anthology pieces, assuming that anyone interested enough to be reading the blog is likely to be already well acquainted with them. But that does result in a bit of self-denial – after all, at least some of the poems in anthologies are there because they are very very good – and anyway there is a chance that my assumption might not be entirely true. And maybe, even if it is, it does no harm to give such poems yet another airing. So this week we have Browning’s masterpiece, ‘My Last Duchess’, a chilling study of male dominance and the destruction of innocence by a murderous possessiveness.

My Last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my Lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”; such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace–all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good; but thanked
Somehow . . . I know not how . . . as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”–and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
–E’en then would be some stooping; and I chuse
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your Master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

Robert Browning

Week 371: Keats at Teignmouth, by Charles Causley

An early poem by Charles Causley – in fact the first in his ‘Collected Poems’ – but showing already his very distinctive style and his mastery of ballad rhythms. I think you have to be careful when deploying a colourful and idiosyncratic diction like Causley’s – the words in a poem should be there primarily to draw attention to what the poem is about and only secondarily to themselves – but at least you are never going to mistake Causley’s work for anyone else’s.

Keats At Teignmouth – Spring 1818

By the wild sea-wall I wandered
Blinded by the salting sun,
While the sulky Channel thundered
Like an old Trafalgar gun.

And I watched the gaudy river
Under trees of lemon-green,
Coiling like a scarlet bugle
Through the valley of the Teign.

When spring fired her fusilladoes
Salt-spray, sea-spray on the sill,
When the budding scarf of April
Ravelled on the Devon hill.

Then I saw the crystal poet
Leaning on the old sea-rail;
In his breast lay death, the lover,
In his head, the nightingale.

Charles Causley

Week 370: From ‘Xenia’, by Eugenio Montale

When his wife died the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) wrote a sequence of short poems in her memory, linked but able to stand alone; he called the sequence ‘Xenia’, meaning ‘gifts’, particularly those made as a token of hospitality by a host to his guest. Their style is much plainer and more direct than that found in most of his other work, which makes them not only very accessible but very moving in their simplicity. This one commemorates his wife’s brother, who died young, and by extension her.

The translation that follows is my own.

From ‘Xenia’

Tuo fratello morì giovane; tu eri
la bimba scarruffata che mi guarda
“in posa” nell’ovale di un ritratto.
Scrisse musiche inedite, inaudite,
oggi sepolte in un baule o andate
al macero. Forse le riinventa
qualcuno inconsapevole, se ciò ch’è scritto è scritto.
L’amavo senza averlo conosciuto.
Fuori di te nessuno lo ricordava.
Non ho fatto ricerche: ora è inutile.
Dopo di te sono rimasto il solo
per cui egli è esistito. Ma è possibile,
lo sai, amare un’ombra, ombre noi stessi.

Your brother died young; you
Were the tousle-headed girl looking out at me
From your pose in an oval portrait. He wrote music
Unpublished, unperformed, buried today
In a trunk or sent for pulping; yet maybe,
If what is written stays written, reinvented
Unknowingly by someone else. I loved him
Although I never knew him, but only you
Remembered him. I never made inquiries
To know him better, and now it would be in vain:
With you gone, I am left the only one
For whom he once existed. Yet one can.
I know it, love a shade, being shadows ourselves.

Week 369: From ‘The Farthest Shore’, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) is perhaps best known for her science fiction, which included such classics as ‘The Left Hand Of Darkness’, but for me her crowning achievement remains the first three volumes of the ‘Earthsea’ series, which earn her a place among the great masters of alternative fiction – Tolkien, Garner, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman – in what has surely been a great age of that genre. And for me the most profound and resonant of those three volumes is the third, ‘The Farthest Shore’. Much later she came back to ‘Earthsea’ with a fourth volume, ‘Tehanu’, but sadly the magic was gone, her previously unfettered imagination too obviously subordinated to her ideological concerns – worthy concerns to be sure, but still… as Keats observed in one of his letters: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us’. .

‘The Farthest Shore’ tells the story of the wizard Ged’s last and greatest quest, to find and destroy the evil that is draining power from the world and destroying the Equilibrium. Accompanied by the young prince Arren, he journeys across the archipelago that is Earthsea and finally crosses the land of the dead. This passage, which I think exemplifies Le Guin’s unshowy but beautifully rhythmic prose, is taken from near the end of the book, when the quest has been fulfilled but all Ged’s power is spent, and Arren is left to save both of them.

‘He was not downcast. Though very tired. and grieving for his companion, he felt not the least bitterness or regret. Only there was no longer anything he could do. It had all been done.

When his strength came back into him, he thought, he would try surf-fishing with the line from his pack; for once thirst was quenched he had begun to feel the gnawing hunger, and their food was gone, all but one packet of hard-bread. He would save that, for if he soaked and softened it with water he might be able to feed some of it to Ged. And that was all there was left to do. Beyond that he could not see; the mist was all about him.

He felt about in his pockets as he sat there, huddled with Ged in the fog, to see if he had anything useful. In his tunic pocket was a hard, sharp-edged thing. He drew it forth and looked at it, puzzled. It was a small stone, black, porous, hard. He almost tossed it away. Then he felt the edges of it in his hand, rough and searing, and felt the weight of it, and knew it for what it was, a bit of rock from the Mountains of Pain. It had caught in his pocket as he climbed or when he crawled to the edge of the pass with Ged. He held it in his hand, the unchanging thing, the stone of pain. He closed his hand on it, and held it. And he smiled then, a smile both sombre and joyous, knowing, for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised, and at the end of the world, victory’.