Week 161: Louis MacNeice, by Geoffrey Grigson

I think this is a fine elegy for a poet I much admire; the only problem I have with it is that I cannot figure out the significance of the word ‘sorrel’ in the second line. I looked up both sorrel and the quite different plant wood-sorrel in Grigson’s magisterial ‘Englishman’s Flora’, hoping for a clue, but that didn’t help; I knew sorrel can also mean a reddish-brown hue or a horse of that colour, but that doesn’t seem to fit either, and looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary added a now obsolete meaning ‘a buck in its third year’, which also got me no further. It really nags at me when I don’t understand something in a poem that I otherwise find perfectly lucid, a bit like having a last unfinished clue in a crossword, so any explanation will be most gratefully received!

Louis MacNeice
(September 2, 1963)

I turned on the transistor
By luck, for your sorrel,
Your Vol de Nuit,
It was Haydn.

Black and diffident man
Of the bog and stoa
Whose rush of love
Was rejected,

Whose wolfhound
Bent round my table,
Who are no longer around
In your Chinese

Garden of poems.
Where one is of water,
On which tea-yellow
Leaves of another

Are falling, always
Are falling, this one
Is a stone by itself,
On which you inscribe

With invisible legible letters
That unrest of the soul
Which you found
So wryly appalling.

You have gone: will
No longer arrange
In sunlight with wit
Your aloneness.

But, classical quizzical
One, whose scent is
Sharp in the centre,
Your garden is open.

Geoffrey Grigson

Week 93: From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’ by Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay’s ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’, a long poem chronicling Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 election campaign and ultimate defeat by the Republican candidate William McKinley, is a strange beast, part political rant, part lyrical evocation of youthful idealism, part elegy for lost love and lost dreams. The politics may be a bit dated now – most outside the US will remember Lindsay’s hero William Jennings Bryan, if at all, as an opponent of Darwinism in the Scopes trial – but the lyrical and elegiac parts seem as fresh as ever, and I give here two extracts that seem to me to represent those best.

From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan Bryan’

The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.


Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna’s McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer’s prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: Stand pat’?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere…with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgement Day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.

Vachel Lindsay