Week 459: The Relique, by John Donne

Some poems, like runners, set off at a cracking pace but end up limping to the finishing line. I think, for example, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet ‘The Windhover’, with its stunning evocation of a kestrel in the first eight lines followed by the disappointment of the contorted last six: ‘Oh, so it was just an excuse for a bit of religion’. And I think this poem by John Donne (1572-1631) is another example. It has a great opening stanza, passionate, direct and mordantly witty, and ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ surely has to be one of English poetry’s most memorable images. But then in the next two stanzas for me the passion and directness peter out, becoming lost in a mere play of ideas, and the poem ends with a tired conventional hyperbole. Still fluent verse, yes, but Donne, like other of the Metaphysicals, sometimes reminds me of a footballer so enamoured of his skill at dribbling the ball as to forget that the point of the game is to score goals.

The Relique

When my grave is broke up again
       Some second guest to entertain,
       (For graves have learn’d that woman head,
       To be to more than one a bed)
                And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
                Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

         If this fall in a time, or land,
         Where mis-devotion doth command,
         Then he, that digs us up, will bring
         Us to the bishop, and the king,
                To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
                A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men;
And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

         First, we lov’d well and faithfully,
         Yet knew not what we lov’d, nor why;
         Difference of sex no more we knew
         Than our guardian angels do;
                Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
                Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals
Which nature, injur’d by late law, sets free;
These miracles we did, but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

John Donne

Week 458: Scorpion, by Stevie Smith

This week another of Stevie Smith’s highly original poems, in which she masks a serious intent by adopting the persona of a garrulous and slightly nutty aunt. It is like a conjuror’s distraction technique, but watch carefully and don’t be fooled. (‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’/No, I am Scorpion.) And scorpions carry a sting in the tail…

Scorpion

‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee’
My Soul is never required of me
It always has to be somebody else of course
Will my soul be required of me tonight perhaps?

(I often wonder what it will be like
To have one’s soul required of one
But all I can think of is the Out-Patients’ Department –
‘Are you Mrs. Briggs, dear?’
No, I am Scorpion.)

I should like my soul to be required of me, so as
To waft over grass till it comes to the blue sea
I am very fond of grass, I always have been, but there must
Be no cow, person or house to be seen.

Sea and grass must be quite empty
Other souls can find somewhere else.

O Lord God please come
And require the soul of thy Scorpion

Scorpion so wishes to be gone.

Stevie Smith

Week 457: Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen, by Heinrich Heine

In response to correspondent Chris’s request last week, here is the Heine poem mentioned, with my own attempt at a translation. It’s an untitled section of a sequence in ‘Gedichte 1853-1854’, written when Heine was in failing health, a few years before his death in 1856.

Heine is a very accessible poet, but also quite tricky. He has a technique of laying on the sentiment rather too thickly, then scraping off some but not all of it with an ironic flick of his verbal trowel, and it can be hard for a non-native speaker to gauge his exact tone. In this poem, for example, in which he is constantly undercutting his own real pathos, I suspect that the verb ‘schwätzen’, with its suggestion of artless prattle, would not now be complimentary if used of a woman, and probably wasn’t then. Which need not make it less fond, of course. Though it’s fairly typical of Heine that at the same time as making these uxorious declarations he was managing in his closing years to have a love affair with a young woman. His wife Mathilde survived him, dying in 1883. 

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen

Mich locken nicht die Himmelsauen
Im Paradies, im sel’gen Land;
Dort find ich keine schönre Frauen,
Als ich bereits auf Erden fand.

Kein Engel mit den feinsten Schwingen
Könnt mir ersetzen dort mein Weib;
Auf Wolken sitzend Psalmen singen,
Wär auch nicht just mein Zeitvertreib.

O Herr! ich glaub, es wär das beste,
Du ließest mich in dieser Welt;
Heil nur zuvor mein Leibgebreste,
Und sorge auch für etwas Geld.

Ich weiß, es ist voll Sünd’ und Laster
Die Welt; jedoch ich bin einmal
Gewöhnt, auf diesem Erdpechpflaster
Zu schlendern durch das Jammertal.

Genieren wird das Weltgetreibe
Mich nie, denn selten geh ich aus;
In Schlafrock und Pantoffeln bleibe
Ich gern bei meiner Frau zu Haus.

Laß mich bei ihr! Hör ich sie schwätzen,
Trinkt meine Seele die Musik
Der holden Stimme mit Ergötzen.
So treu und ehrlich ist ihr Blick!

Gesundheit nur und Geldzulage
Verlang ich, Herr! O laß mich froh
Hinleben noch viel schöne Tage
Bei meiner Frau im statu quo!

Heinrich Heine

They’re not for me, the fields divine
Of Paradise, that holy ground.
I’ll find no women there more fine
Than those on earth already found.

No angel there with splendid wing
Could take the place of my own wife;
And sitting on a cloud to sing
Is not quite my idea of life.

O Lord! I think it best for me
To let this world below suffice,
Just heal first my infirmity.
Also, some money would be nice.

It’s full of vice and sin, I know,
This world of ours, and yet the years
Have long accustomed me to go
Down mean streets through this vale of tears.

The bustle of the world around
Won’t bother one who does not roam,
Content in slippers, dressing-gowned,
To be beside his wife at home.

O let me stay to hear again
Her prattle that delights my days,
My soul drink up her sweet refrain.
So true and honest is her gaze.

Just health and money then, o Lord,
I ask, that I may live to know
The fair days time may yet afford
With my wife and the status quo!

Week 456: Family Fortunes, by C.H.Sisson

C.H.Sisson (1914-2003) worked in a modernist, imagist tradition very different from any that I would see myself as belonging to, and for the most part his values and admirations are not mine, yet there is something about his own poems, especially the ruefully elegiac later ones, that I find intriguing: a kind of cerebral music, a bittersweet scent on the page, like rosemary. Here he looks back trying to find meaning in a life and ancestry characterised by a puzzling arbitrariness of fate and fortune.

Family Fortunes
                                    1

I was born in Bristol, and it is possible
To live harshly in that city

Quiet voices possess it, but the boy
Torn from the womb, cowers

Under a ceiling of cloud. Tramcars
Crash by or enter the mind

A barred room bore him, the backyard
Smooth as a snake-skin, yielded nothing

In the fringes of the town parsley and honeysuckle
Drenched the hedges.

                                    2

My mother was born in West Kington
Where ford and bridge cross the river together

John Worlock farmed there, my grandfather
Within sight of the square church-tower

The rounded cart-horses shone like metal
My mother remembered their fine ribbons.

She lies in the north now where the hills
Are pale green, and I

Whose hand never steadied a plough
Wish I had finished my long journey.

                                    3

South of the march parts my father
Lies also, and the fell town

That cradles him now sheltered also
His first unconsciousness.

He walked from farm to farm with a kit of tools
From clock to clock, and at the end

Only they spoke to him, he
Having tuned his youth to their hammers.

                                    4

I had two sisters, one I cannot speak of
For she died a child, and the sky was blue that day

The other lived to meet blindness
Groping on the stairs, not admitting she could not see

Felled at last under a surgeon’s hammer
Then left to rot, surgically

And I have a brother who, being alive,
Does not need to be put in a poem.

C.H.Sisson

Week 455: She played the strumpet in my bed, by Freda Downie

The Reverend Thomas Bowdler was a nineteenth-century physician and literary enthusiast who took it on himself to purge Shakespeare’s plays of ‘those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’. This evidently led him to have Othello strangling Desdemona because she played the trumpet, rather than the strumpet of the original, in his bed. I suspect that this story is apocryphal and designed to poke fun at the good doctor – does anyone have a copy of Bowdler’s ‘The Family Shakespeare’ to check? – but anyway the poet Freda Downie (1929-1993) takes the idea and runs with it, having a good deal of fun herself in the process. I’m not sure that I catch all the playful subtext here, and the last four lines in particular seem a bit elusive: I take them to mean something like ‘I was afraid the unfettered exuberance of our lovemaking would attract the attention of my handsome neighbour who would then follow suit? cuckold me?, and that indeed is what happened’. Still, a poem that I find highly original and quirkily memorable.

She played the strumpet in my bed
(for Dr Bowdler)

She played the trumpet in my bed
And never failed to raise my head
Her low notes in a minor key
Were studies in intimacy
And preludes to that highest note
I urged her on to every night.

And yet, that note I feared the most.
I feared the ornaments were lost –
I feared the stars would be blown out –
I feared my neighbour roundabout
Would lift his own dark handsome head
Divining brass in my low bed.

And that is what my neighbour did.

Freda Downie

Week 454: Old Man, by Edward Thomas

One of Edward Thomas’s best and best-loved poems, characterised by his brooding, wistful intelligence, that always seems to be trying to bring into focus something half-glimpsed at the corner of the eye, that would give him a completeness he felt he lacked.

The child in the poem is Myfanwy, Thomas’s younger daughter. Born in 1910, Myfanwy survived into her nineties, dying in 2005. In 2000 I was asked by the Edward Thomas Fellowship to write a poem for her ninetieth birthday. Normally I don’t, or can’t, write to order, but as luck would have it I had a little earlier that year happened to call in at the Hampshire village of Steep, Edward’s onetime home, on the way back from a day out with my wife and daughter, and a poem on the subject had begun to form in my mind. The request gave me the jolt to finish and send it off, and in due course I received a letter from Myfanwy herself, expressing her appreciation. I remain moved to have had that living link with the poet I love most, one whom Ted Hughes called ‘the father of us all’, and I hope I may be indulged if I append my own poem as a sort of follow-on to Edward’s.

Old Man

Old Man, or Lad’s-love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

Edward Thomas

At Steep (for Myfanwy Thomas on her 90th birthday)

Driving home through Hampshire with my daughter
I see a sign that beckons like a legend
Though on plain earth, and so it is we come
In April twilight, clearing after rain,
Like pilgrim ghosts your childhood might have seen
Out of its unimaginable future,
Up Stoner Hill and round by Cockshott Lane,
To find, through trees and down a root-stepped path,
Your father’s boulder, set there on the slope.

My daughter runs ahead of me, downhill
Past dim white cherries, cowslips, violets,
Mildly curious, but wanting tea.

‘Who was Edward Thomas anyway?’
I say ‘A poet.’ ‘Oh.’ My daughter’s twelve,
Likes judo, dancing, being with her friends.
Poems are the things that daft Dads write
Light-years away from coolness.
                                                            ‘Was he good?’
So short a question. And so long an answer
If truth were served: as long, say, as long years
Of looking, loving, waiting.
                                                           ‘He was good.’

I take her photograph beside the stone.
‘Can we go back now?’ Yes, my love, we can.
To keep the covenant was all I wanted.
You see, this is our obscure faith, our trust,
Whether we live or die too soon, unknowing,
That somewhere in the private rooms of time
Others will read for love alone the words
We wrote for love, alone.
                                                        And deeper still
There is another covenant we keep:
Let our words be forgotten, let our lives
Fade utterly, but not these: let there be
Always an April evening, woods, a thrush
Singing and a child, always a child,
A daughter, maybe, finding violets
Or standing in the twilight by a path,
Plucking a bush, with one to see her there
Apart, in all a child’s grave otherness,
And love her.
                           ‘Can we get chips?’ We get chips.

David Sutton

Note: ‘Your father’s boulder…’ On the hillside above Steep called Mutton Hill there is set in memory of Edward a sarsen boulder bearing a simple plaque, the best of poet’s memorials, and here you can stand looking out over fields and coppices whose names he would have known, hearing as he once heard the wind in the trees and watching the sunlight come and go on the rim of the downs.

Week 453: ‘To fight aloud is very brave’ by Emily Dickinson

It can be difficult to know precisely what Emily Dickinson means in her poems. It is not that her language is obscure, though it can be quirky, more that it is oblique, that she comes at things from an unexpected angle. But this one seems fairly clear: she is saying that there are two kinds of courage: there is the extrovert martial courage of, say, soldiers fighting for their country, and this is good in its way, but still greater is the quiet unsung courage of those who deal privately with life’s trials, with isolation, illness, bereavement, who face down their inner demons alone.

Some years back my three-year old grandson started nursery school. When asked how he got on on his first day, he said ‘I was a bit sad, but Big Connor said don’t whinge, so I didn’t’. If I read this poem right, I think Emily Dickinson would have approved four-year old Connor’s sturdy philosophy of life. Which need not mean that she lacked a proper compassion for the suffering and disadvantaged – the best stoics ask of themselves more than they ask of others.

Textual note: versions of the poem can be found online in which ‘cavalry’ in the fourth line is replaced by ‘Calvary’, the place of the Crucifixion, enabling the expositor to link the idea to the suffering of Jesus. As far as I know there is no warrant for this dyslexic reading, and to me charging an enemy cavalry makes more sense than charging a place, so the commoner version of the line is what I’ve stuck with.

To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.

Emily Dickinson

Week 452: Orfeo, trad. arranged by Archie Fisher

This week a good example of the enduring and chameleonic power of story. It all started with the Greek myth of Orpheus, which tells how that matchless singer went down to the Underworld to bring back his lost love Eurydice. At some stage this finds its way into a ballad in Middle Danish and is given a happy ending (in the original story Orpheus cannot resist turning round to look back at Eurydice as they make their way up from Hades, thus breaking a prohibition and losing her again). It then makes its way to Shetland where it appears in a fragmented form in the Norn dialect of those islands. Finally it is taken in hand by the great Scottish folksinger Archie Fisher, who with the help of fellow singer Martin Carthy fills in the gaps and adds a stunning instrumental backing: I think it is his masterwork. Archie notes: ‘The second and fourth lines of each verse are all that remains of what is said to have been its middle Danish origins. Translated they mean “Early greens the wood” and “Where the hart goes yearly”.’

The fairy ride is reminiscent of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, but the king of the fairies in this poem is less grudging than the vengeful queen in that one.

The word ‘gabber’ is a bit mysterious, but it may be a corrupt form of an old Scots word ‘gamari’, meaning ‘merriment’, and a ‘gabber reel’ is taken to mean ‘a sprightly tune’. Think, perhaps, Steve Earle and Sharon Shannon performing ‘The Galway Girl’…

Orfeo

There lived a king intae the east
Skoven arle grön
There lived a lady in the west
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

The king, he has a-huntin’ gane,
Skoven arle grön
And he left his lady all alane.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘I wish ye’d never gane away
Skoven arle grön
Your lady cold as death doth lay.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

For the King of Fairies wi’ his dert
Skoven arle grön
Has pierced your lady to the hert’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he has called his nobles all
Skoven arle grön
Tae waltz her corpse intae the hall.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he’s set guards three hundred three
Skoven arle grön
To watch her corpse both nicht and day
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

At nicht when they lay fast asleep
Skoven arle grön
Oot o’ the hoos her corpse did sweep
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And the king has gane to the woodward wear
Skoven arle grön
And a band of horsemen him drew near
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And some did ride and some did sing
Skoven arle grön
He spied his lady them amang
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And in yon hill there was a hall
Skoven arle grön
And in went she and the horsemen all
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And after them the king has gaen
Skoven arle grön
But when he cam it was grey stane
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he took oot his pipes to play
Skoven arle grön
But sair his hert with dule and wae
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

But he has played a gabber reel
Skoven arle grön
That would have made a sick heart heal
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Now come ye in into oor hall
Skoven arle grön
Now come ye in amongst us all’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

Now he’s gone in into their hall
Skoven arle grön
And he’s gone in among them all
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he took oot his pipes to play
Skoven arle grön
But sair his hert with dule and wae
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And first he played the notes o’ noy
Skoven arle grön
And then he played the notes o’ joy
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Noo tell to us what will ye hae?
Skoven arle grön
What shall we gi’ you for your play?’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘What I will hae I will ye tell
Skoven arle grön
And that’s my lady Isabel’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Ye take your lady and gang hame
Skoven arle grön
And ye be king o’er all your ain’.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

He’s taen his lady and gane hame
Skoven arle grön
And he is king o’er all his ain.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

Traditional, arr. Archie Fisher

Week 451: From ‘Hamlet’. by William Shakespeare

This may brand me forever as a literary Philistine, but I confess that I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s comedies, and I can’t help wondering how much we would still be bothering with them were it not for the tragedies, histories and sonnets. I remember a conversation with a classmate at school as we struggled to see the point of ‘Twelfth Night’, mysteriously chosen as a set text suitable for thirteen-year olds.

‘Dave, why are we reading this tosh?’
‘Because the guy wrote “Hamlet”.’
‘Then why aren’t we reading f—–g “Hamlet”?’

Which were my sentiments exactly. So it is necessary to remind myself from time to time of certain things, and it doesn’t take long: a passage like this from Act 1, Scene 1 is enough to do the job. Come back, William, all is forgiven.

MARCELLUS

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

HORATIO

So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

The cock, the ‘bird of dawning’, has long figured in folklore as symbolizing the powers of light. Tolkien readers will remember how the crowing of a cock marks the arrival of the Rohirrim and the start of the great battle of the Pelennor Fields: ‘Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of of war and wizardry, welcoming only the morning…’.

Finally, it’s a very brave man or a very self-deluded one who will offer one of his own poems as an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s, but just in case there should be any doubt that when it comes to the serious stuff I am as bardolatrous as the next man, I append my own Hamlet-inspired piece….

First Night

I like to think of when your words were new
And came like scalding lava, before they cooled
Into a long familiar fantastic
Or to try, like you, always another image,
Of that long summer when our language bloomed
And you went stumbling like a drunken bee
From wayside herb to blossom-laden bough –
Never such harvest, nor such honeycomb.

But most I like to think of that first night,
The crowd spilling out, to walk by the starlit river
Full of it all: the ghost, the poor drowned girl,
The sword-fight at the end, and quoting lines
That smouldered on, like coals in thatch: and then
That bit about the undiscover’d country,
How did it go, To be or not to be?
Neat, anyway; you’ve got to give him that.

David Sutton

Week 450: The Collier, by Vernon Watkins

This ballad by Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) interweaves memories of an idyllic childhood with the grim reckoning demanded by adulthood in the form of a life down the coal-pit, culminating in a mine disaster, while at the same time working in allusions to the biblical story of Joseph. I think it is one of his best pieces, a poem in which he seems to find his own voice, more so than in much of his work, which is a little too heavily influencd by his lifelong devotion to W.B.Yeats. If I have reservations it’s about a certain detachment from reality in the poem’s ending. In ‘Station Island’ Seamus Heaney has the ghost of his cousin, victim of a sectarian killing during the Troubles, reproach the poet for romanticising his death in his earlier poem ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’: ‘for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/and saccharined my death with morning dew’. By the same token Watkins could be accused of saccharining the choking claustrophobic death of miners in a pit disaster. All the same, one has to admire the skill with which he handles the ballad form, in a way somewhat reminiscent of that other modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley.

The Collier

When I was born on Amman hill
A dark bird crossed the sun.
Sharp on the floor the shadow fell;
I was the youngest son.

And when I went to the County School
I worked in a shaft of light.
In the wood of the desk I cut my name:
Dai for Dynamite.

The tall black hills my brothers stood;
Their lessons all were done.
From the door of the school when I ran out
They frowned to watch me run.

The slow grey bells they rang a chime
Surly with grief or age.
Clever or clumsy, lad or lout,
All would look for a wage.

I learnt the valley flowers’ names
And the rough bark knew my knees.
I brought home trout from the river
And spotted eggs from the trees.

A coloured coat I was given to wear
Where the lights of the rough land shone.
Still jealous of my favour
The tall black hills looked on.

They dipped my coat in the blood of a kid
And they cast me down a pit,
And although I crossed with strangers,
There was no way up from it.

Soon as I went from the County School
I worked in a shaft. Said Jim,
‘You will get your chain of gold, my lad,
But not for a likely time.’

And one said, ‘Jack was not raised up
When the wind blew out the light
Though he interpreted their dreams
And guessed their fears by night.’

And Tom, he shivered his leper’s lamp
For the stain that round him grew;
And I heard mouths pray in the after-damp
When the picks would not break through.

They changed words there in the darkness
And still through my head they run,
And white on my limbs is the linen sheet
And gold on my neck the sun.

Vernon Watkins