Week 364: Tell me not here, it needs not saying, by A.E.Housman

I have always felt this week’s offering to be one of the most beautiful of English poems, at least as far as the first four verses go. I could do without the last verse, in which the elegy edges over into self-pity: if you really have to state the obvious about man’s relationship to ‘heartless, witless nature’ then I rather prefer the breezy acceptance of W.H.Auden’s lines: ‘Looking up at the stars I know quite well/That for all they care I can go to hell’. Well, quite. The universe is not about us. Which need not prevent us from finding it an immensely interesting place, and being grateful for the opportunity to observe it for a brief span. 

Tell me not here, it needs not saying

Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.

On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own.

On acres of the seeded grasses
The changing burnish heaves;
Or marshalled under moons of harvest
Stand still all night the sheaves;
Or beeches strip in storms for winter
And stain the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.


Week 363: Fire Thief, by Karine Polwart

This is an original work by the Scottish folk-singer Karine Polwart, written for a BBC Radio 2 musical documentary series called The Radio Ballads. It is based on interviews with Anne Marie, who is living with HIV and lost her husband to AIDS, and Betty, who lost her son Michael. Both husband and son suffered from AIDS-related dementia long before their bodies died. I admire how skilfully Karine uses the devices of the old ballads – question-and-answer, refrain – to build an atmosphere of doom and pity. Of course, it’s better still with its music, a haunting guitar accompaniment: the track can be found on Karine’s album ‘This Earthly Spell’.

A couple of Scots words here: a rickle is a loose heap or rickety structure; dool is dolour, pain.

Fire Thief

Who stole the heart of my bonnie laddie
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in his body?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the light in my laddie’s eyes
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in disguise?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the words on my laddie’s tongue
All alone and aloney O
And left me a rickle of skin and bone?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole today? Who stole tomorrow?
All alone and aloney O
And left me with nothing but doul and sorrow?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

I know the name of the fire thief
All alone and aloney O
But you can’t grow a tree from a fallen leaf
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow
Down where I cannot go

Karine Polwart

Week 362: What were they like?, by Denise Levertov

I have been reading Max Hastings’ ‘Vietnam’, an account of the Vietnamese War in which he meticulously chronicles the destruction of the country and the devastating effect of the conflict on those caught in the middle. This poem by the American poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) distils the essence of that calamity. The diction has a lyric quality which may seem at odds with the subject, yet adds a further sheen of irony to the poem.

What were they like?

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they once gathered to delight in blossoms,
but after the children were killed, there were no more buds.

Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps.
Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.

It is not remembered. Remember, most were peasants:
their life was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies,
and water buffaloes stepped along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs shattered those mirrors,
there was time only to scream.

There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported that their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

Denise Levertov

Week 361: The River’s Tale, by Rudyard Kipling

Another example of Kipling’s power to evoke the quasi-mythical past of Britain, in much the same vein as he manages in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, conjuring up ‘Merlin’s isle of gramarye’, (see week 270), and its successor volume ‘Rewards and Fairies’. As history it’s a romantic gallimaufry, but it’s still good fun.

The River’s Tale

Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew
Wanted to know what the River knew,
For they were young, and the Thames was old
And this is the tale that River told:

‘I walk my beat before London Town,
Five hours up and seven down.
Up I go till I end my run
At Tide-end-Town, which is Teddington.
Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.

‘I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,
The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,
And the giant tigers that stalked them down
Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.
And I remember like yesterday
The earliest Cockney who came my way,
When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,
With paint on his face and a club in his hand.
He was death to feather and fin and fur.
He trapped my beavers at Westminster.
He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,
He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.
He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,
Flint or bronze, at my upper fords.
While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin
The tall Phoenician ships stole in,
And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,
Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith Way;
And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,
And life was gay, and the world was new,
And I was a mile across at Kew!
But the Roman came with a heavy hand,
And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,
And the Roman left and the Danes blew in –
And that’s where your history-books begin!’

Rudyard Kipling

Week 360: American Names, by Stephen Vincent Benet

I think it is possible to find this poem evocative even if, like me, one has little idea of what is being evoked. I have no idea, for example, what associations Carquinez Straits or Skunktown Plain might have for the American reader, but there is always a kind of magic in place-names, those human appropriations or summonings of small pieces of our planet..

The racial appellation in the fourth stanza grates on us now, of course: one can only plead that the poet at the time (1927) would not have seen it as offensive, which invites, I suppose, the rejoinder well, he should have.

I don’t know who the Henry and John of the sixth stanza were. My guess is a couple of writers who left America for Europe, possibly Henry James and John Dos Passos.

Nantucket Light, on the island of Nantucket off the coast Massachusetss, would be one of the first things seen by a traveller returning to America.

American Names

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

Stephen Vincent Benét (1927)

Week 359: On Raglan Road, by Patrick Kavanagh

There are probably few in my audience who have not already met this beautiful poem of unrequited love by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, either in its original form as a poem first published in 1954 under the title ‘Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away’, or else (with slightly altered wording) as a song first made popular by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, set to a traditional Irish air ‘The Dawning of the Day’, and subsequently covered by scores of folk artists. The poem was written for a young medical student Hilda Moriarty, but Kavanagh was 40 at the time as against her 22, and evidently the relationship foundered, or perhaps never really got going, because of that gap.

I have sometimes wondered if in line 12 Kavanagh really meant to capitalise May – when I first heard it, as a song, I took it as ‘clouds over fields of may’ i.e. fields of hawthorn blossom, which seemed to make sense as contrasting dark hair and white skin. But all versions seem to agree on the capitalisation.

On Raglan Road

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay-
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 358: Llananno, by R.S.Thomas

I think it is possible for even R.S.Thomas’s greatest admirers, among whom I would certainly count myself, to become a little exasperated at his repetitive and somewhat one-sided conversations with God, and to want to quote the physicist Richard Feynman at him: ‘that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know.’ But in this serenely beautiful poem at least it appears that for once the divinity who so often eluded his questing search is present for him.


I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river and enter
the church with its clear reflection
beside it.

There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide. Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water’s
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.