Week 271: Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser, by D.M.Thomas

The poet prefixes this poem with the noteAt Tewkesbury Abbey is a lock of red-brown hair, belonging to Isabelle, Countess of Warwick, and dated 1429’

That is probably all you need to know to enjoy the poem, but to give a bit more background, Isabel le Despenser (1400-1439) was the posthumous daughter and eventually the sole heiress of Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was beheaded in 1399 for his part in a plot against Henry IV. Her mother was Constance of York, the daughter of Edmund of Langley, a son of King Edward III.

Elegy for Isabelle le Despenser

Better than stones and castles were my bones.
Better than spears and battles were my tears.
Better than towers and rafters was my laughter.
Better than light and stained glass was my sight.
Better than grate and boar-spit was my hate.
Better than rush and tapestry was my flush.
Better than gold and silver was my shiver.
Better than gloves and falcons was my love.
Better than crests and banners were my breasts.
Better than tombs and effigies was my womb.
Better than art and ikons was my hurt.
Better than crypts and candles were my friendships.
Better than leaf and parchment was my grief.
Better than mass and matins was my chatter.
Better than swans and bridges were my yawns.
Better than wool and weaving was my breathing.
Remember Isabelle le Despenser,
Who was as light and vivid as this hair.
We are all one.
She sees the clouds scud by, she breathes your air,
Pities the past and those who settled there.


Week 51: Stone, by D.M.Thomas


The first book of a poet should be called Stone
Or Evening, expressing in a single word
The modesty of being part of the earth,
The goodness of evening and stone, beyond the poet.

The second book should have a name blushing
With a great generality, such as My Sister Life,
Shocking in its pride, even more in its modesty:
Exasperated, warm, teasing, observant, tender.

Later books should withdraw into a mysterious
Privacy such as we all make for ourselves:
The White Stag or Plantain. Or include the name
Of the place at which his book falls open.

There is also the seventh book, perhaps, the seventh,
And called The Seventh Book because it is not published,
The one that a child thinks he could have written,
Made of the firmest stone and clearest leaves,

That a people keep alive by, keep alive.


A fine tribute to the indomitable spirit of Russian poetry and the poets who kept faith with it during the Stalinist era while undergoing the kind of persecution that makes at least one English poet reflect that being of no interest whatsoever to the state or media may not be so bad after all…

 It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that ‘Stone’ was the title of Osip Mandelstam’s first collection, ‘Evening’ was the title of Anna Akhmatova’s first collection, ‘My Sister Life’ was the title of Boris Pasternak’s second collection, ‘Plantain’ and ‘Seventh Book’ were further collections by Akhmatova; the last named was never separately published.