I imagine that many may find the rather Kiplingesque sentiment of this poem challenging in these post-colonial times when the whole concept of empire has long been called into question. I do myself, but I think that we should, within reason, always be prepared to listen to an unfashionable viewpoint, rather than simply denying a speaker the right to hold it, and should try to be open to the possibilities of nuance, the nuance in this case being that some servants of the British Empire may have done their best to carry out their roles in a humane and beneficial way, even if the existence of those roles in the first place may be contentious.
I suppose the fact is that morality and poetry have always been imperfect bedfellows, but cohabit they must. I cannot see, for example, how a poem that extolled the virtues of cruelty or celebrated the Holocaust could be other than detestable, however technically accomplished. Yet at the same time it would be a pity to have a generation of poets grow up thinking that poetry is simply a matter of saying right things, and forgetting that it is also a matter of saying things right.
‘Here comes Sir George’
The boys wink at the boys: ‘Here comes Sir George.’
Yes, here he comes, punctual as nine o’clock
with bad jokes buzzing at his ramrod back –
‘Victoria’s Uncle,’ ‘Rearguard of the Raj’.
They do not know or, if they know, forget
the old fool held a province down larger
than England; not as a Maharaja
prodigal with silver and bayonet;
but with cool sense, authority and charm
that still attend him, crossing a room
with The Odes of Horace under his arm
and in his button-hole a fresh-cut bloom.
Honour the rearguard, you half-men, for it
was, in retreat, the post of honour. He –
last of The Titans – is worth your study.
You are not worth the unsheathing of his wit.
This is the last section of a longer poem, ‘The Almond Tree’, by Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014). The poem deals with the birth of a child who turns out to have Down Syndrome. Its inclusion here is a little problematic because, although it appears in the poem as first published, the poet then removed it on the grounds that he no longer felt comfortable with it, seeing it as ‘making explicit things that should have remained implicit’. I think that this is a pity – I feel that this section makes a touching coda to a poem that is diminished without it. A proper reticence is admirable, in poetry as in life, and yet it can be very moving when a poet steps out from behind a screen of symbol and metaphor and simply tells it straight. And if we are to concede a poet’s right to amend a poem after publication, then maybe we should also concede a reader’s right to prefer the original.
Note that the poet’s use of the now jarring term ‘mongol’ in the last stanza merely reflects standard nomenclature at the time the poem was written.
From ‘The Almond Tree’
You turn to the window for the first time.
I am called to the cot
To see your focus shift,
Take tendril-hold on a shaft
Of sun, explore its dusty surface. Climb
To an eye you cannot
meet. You have a sickness they cannot heal,
the doctors say: locked in
your body you will remain.
Well, I have been locked in mine.
We will tunnel each other out. You seal
the covenant with a grin.
In the days we have known one another,
my little mongol love,
I have learnt more from your lips
than you will from mine, perhaps.
I have learnt that to live is to suffer,
to suffer is to live.
I have tended to move in practical rather than literary circles and consequently have spent most of my life among people who regard poetry, if they think about it all, with intense suspicion: ‘Why can’t it say what it means?’. This has sometimes moved me to mild protest: ‘It does say what it means, it’s just that sometimes it means more than it says’. But really it does a poet no harm to be reminded from time to time that there is a world out there with concerns very different from his or her own, and I take wry comfort from the fact that if this poem by Jon Stallworthy is to be believed, I am in august company!
It is probably unnecessary to explain that W.B.Yeats nursed an unrequited passion for the political activist Maud Gonne, and made her the subject of some of his best poems, and that sometimes books used to be issued with their pages uncut, so that if you actually wanted to read them you had to get busy with a knife.
From W.B. Yeats to his Friend Maud Gonne
‘From W.B. Yeats to his friend Maud Gonne’.
The writing modest as the words upon
the title-page. Him I can understand;
picture him turning the pen in his hand
considering what to write: something not cold
nor yet embarrassingly overbold.
But in the gallery where my portraits are
I cannot see the heart that, set ajar
for anarchists and peasants and sick birds,
could not be crowbarred open by such words
as break the heart of time; that fountained out
in tears or laughter at a newsboy’s shout
– only to the poet remaining shut
as these clenched pages that she never cut.