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

Week 449: Cilmeri, by Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri is a small village in mid-Wales, not far from the town of Llanfair ym Muallt (Builth Wells), and it was here on December 11th, 1282 that the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, popularly known as Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn our Last Lord) was killed in a minor skirmish with King Edward I of England’s soldiers. After that Wales was never again a fully sovereign state. For many Welsh people, especially those who would like to see the country become an independent nation once more, this is still a matter of raw grief and the name of the place a rallying cry, as evidenced in these sparse englynion by one of the leading modern Welsh-language poets, Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1944-2014). I think that most English people have by now more or less come to terms with the rather unfortunate result of the Battle of Hastings (spoiler alert: we lost). The Welsh are made of sterner stuff and do not roll over so easily!

The fairly literal translation that follows is my own. The formal sound-patterns (cynghanedd) of the Welsh are lacking, of course.

Cilmeri

Fin nos fan hyn
Lladdwyd Llywelyn.
Fyth nid anghofiwn hyn.

Y nant a welaf fan hyn
A welodd Llywelyn,
Camodd ar y cerrig hyn.

Fin nos, fan hyn
O’r golwg nesâi’r gelyn.
Fe wnaed y cyfan fan hyn.

Rwyf fi’n awr fan hyn
Lle bu’i wallt ar welltyn,
A dafnau o’i waed fan hyn.

Fan hyn yw ein cof ni,
Fan hyn sy’n anadl inni,
Fan hyn gynnau fu’n geni.

Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri

Here at the edge of night
They slew Llywelyn.
Never shall we forget.

The stream that I see here
Llywelyn saw.
He stepped upon this stone.

Here at the edge of night
The enemy drew near
Unseen. All happened here.

Here where I am now
Blood-bespattered grass
Cradled his head once.

Here is our memory.
Here, the air we breathe.
Here, just now, our birth.

And no mention of Llywelyn would be complete without a reference to the very fine elegy for him written at the time by Gruffudd ab Yr Ynad Coch, a poet who saw well what a disaster this was for Wales. A full translation by Anthony Conran can be found in the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. Just as a taster, here are some famous lines from it, in my own translation:

Oni welwch chi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?
Oni welwch goed derw’n ymdaro?
Oni welwch chi’r môr yn parlysu’r tir?
Oni welwch chi’r gwir yn ymgreinio?
Oni welwch chi’r haul yn yr awyr yn hwylio?
Oni welwch chi’r sêr wedi syrthio?
Oni chredwch chi yn Nuw, ddynion gwirion?
Oni welwch chi’r byd wedi darfod?

Do you not see the way of the wind and rain?
Do you not see oak trees clashing together?
Do you not see the sea assaulting the land?
Do you not see truth laid low?
Do you not see the sun forsaking the sky?
Do you not see that the stars have fallen?
Do you not believe in God, o foolish men?
Do you not see that the world has ended?


Week 448: From ‘The White Devil’ by John Webster

‘The White Devil’ is a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster (1584-1634). Featuring a convoluted plot and a cast of murderous Italians, it might seem unlikely to have much appeal for a modern audience, and yet, come to think of it, those same ingredients didn’t stop the TV drama ‘The Sopranos’ from being a runaway success, and certainly the twentieth century saw a renewed appreciation of Webster’s dark poetry. One thing’s for sure: he had that Elizabethan knack of handling a strong, flexible blank verse line in a way that has never been surpassed or indeed equalled since. Here is the Italian nobleman Giovanni in conversation with his uncle Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, lamenting the death of Giovanni’s murdered mother Isabella.

Giov.   What do the dead do, uncle? do they eat,
  Hear music, go a-hunting, and be merry,
  As we that live?

Fran.   No, coz; they sleep.

Giov.   Lord, Lord, that I were dead!
  I have not slept these six nights.  When do they wake?

Fran.   When God shall please.

Giov.   Good God, let her sleep ever!
  For I have known her wake an hundred nights,
  When all the pillow where she laid her head
  Was brine-wet with her tears.  I am to complain to you, sir;
  I’ll tell you how they have us’d her now she ‘s dead:
  They wrapp’d her in a cruel fold of lead,
  And would not let me kiss her.

John Webster

Week 447: Scents, by David Sutton

Some time ago my wife lost her sense of smell. Nothing to do with Covid: it seems the condition, known as anosmia, can strike without apparent cause: sometimes the sense spontaneously comes back after a while, but in this case it hasn’t. But at least, unlike many Covid victims who have suffered the same fate, she can still taste things as normal.

Naturally I provide such husbandly comfort as I can, pointing out, for example, how much worse it would be for her if she were a dog. And I suspect most would agree that if you are going to lose one of your senses, smell is the one you are going to miss least. Even so, I find it a bit sad, when I think of all the odours that have given me pleasure in life, and continue to do so. And it has moved me to reflect that the sense of smell is really very little celebrated in poetry; in fact I have failed to think offhand of any poem in which it can be said to take centre stage, which has reduced me to presenting one of my own as this week’s offering…

Scents

Tonight the rain in summer dark
Releases scents of leaf and bark:
The fumy reek of resined trees
And currant’s sweet acridities.

Those aromatic compounds fit
Some membranous receptive pit
And trigger in my waiting brain
The memory of other rain.

I learnt my seasons from no class:
My summers were wild rose and grass,
A velveted and honeyed air.
Tonight I know: the past is there

And lies, so little does it need
To live again, in bush and weed
A yard or two beyond my door.
I am the child I was before.

Odours of earth, like love they came
Before the word, before the name.
The gates of time swing wide for these
Primaeval analeptic keys.

Then let me keep, though all depart,
These strange familiars from my start:
As in my first, in my last air,
Most potent molecules, be there.

David Sutton

Week 446: In A Disused Graveyard, by Robert Frost

So it seems that the tide of the coronavirus epidemic may finally be ebbing from our British shores at least, leaving us with a lot of life to catch up on and a lot of death to remember. Some cause for cautious euphoria, but of course, I reflect, it’s not as if we are now going to stop dying of this and that: it just won’t be in such an obsessively media-monitored way. Which brings to mind this poem by Robert Frost. I like it, even if I feel the sentiment of the last stanza doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny: I don’t see any sense in which can stones be said to believe or not believe anything. And yet how seductive is the pathetic fallacy, especially in the hands of such a master of cadence.

In a Disused Graveyard

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
 
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
 
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
 
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Robert Frost

Week 445: Bluebells, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Just for a week or two each year, at the end of April into early May, my Chiltern countryside is at its spring perfection, and once again I have been walking in Rushmore Wood, along the broad track speckled with the first fall of cherry petals, the wooded slope dropping away to my left, thick with bluebells: pools, lakes, rivers, waterfalls of blue cascading down the slope, and the misty Oxfordshire plain below, glimpsed through a light screen of young beech leaves. Housman, of course, was good on bluebells: ‘And like a skylit water stood/The bluebells in the azured wood’, but when it comes to the detail it is hard to beat Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear, but you have to admire his sincerity and passion. Here he is in his journal engaging all his senses in an attempt to define the flower’s peculiar lovely ‘inscape’.

‘In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transoms. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them’.

There is also this quatrain in his poem ‘May Magnificat’:

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
 ……And magic cuckoocall
 ……Caps, clears, and clinches all—‘

Sadly it is many years since I heard a cuckoo in these parts.