Week 553: Pike, by Ted Hughes

I am of an age to have read each of Ted Hughes’s various volumes of poetry as they came out, and consequently suffered/enjoyed the same rollercoaster ride that many of his fans must have done, though possibly with different ups and downs according to taste. ‘The Hawk In The Rain’ – hm, interesting, need to keep an eye on this one. ‘Lupercal’ – even more interesting, with some definite wows in there. ‘Wodwo’ – a bit odd but still interesting. ‘Crow’ – yuk, how disappointing, not my cup of tea at all. ‘Gaudete’, now this is just plain weird but then ‘Moortown’ – ah, that’s more like it, bang on, especially the first section, and so on through the years with quite a few strange byways but never a dull moment.

So this week, then, one of those first definite wow poems from that second collection, ‘Lupercal’, one that showcases Hughes’s unrivalled power of empathetic identification with the otherness of the natural world and his ability to express the fear and fascination that this evokes.


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads –
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long,
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in this eye
Through its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

Ted Hughes

Week 552: My Youngest Son Came Home Today, by Eric Bogle

More evidence that it is still possible to write powerful contemporary folksongs, and like ‘There Were Roses’ (see week 521) this one too, by the Scottish singer-songwriter Eric Bogle (born 1944) has its genesis in the Irish Troubles. Note how the young man is not identified in sectarian terms; I suppose the reference to sainthood in the second stanza might lead one to assume that he is Catholic, since I have a vague idea that Protestants aren’t so much into the saint thing, but that would be to miss the point.

The song, with its stately dirgelike tune, has been covered by various artists: I know it best through the performance of the Irish singer Mary Black.

My Youngest Son Came Home Today

My youngest son came home today.
His friends marched with him all the way.
The pipes and drums beat out the time
As in his box of polished pine
Like dead meat on a butcher’s tray
My youngest son came home today.

My youngest son was a fine young man
With a wife, a daughter and two sons.
A man he would have lived and died
Till by a bullet sanctified
Now he’s a saint, or so they say.
They brought their saint home today.

Above the narrow Belfast streets
An Irish sky looks down and weeps
On children’s blood in gutters spilled
In dreams of freedom unfulfilled
As part of freedom’s price to pay
My youngest son came home today.

My youngest son came home today.
His friends marched with him all the way.
The pipes and drums beat out the time
As in his box of polished pine
Like dead meat on a butcher’s tray
My youngest son came home today.

And this time he’s home to stay.

Eric Bogle

Week 551: From ‘The Knight’s Tale’, by Geoffrey Chaucer

I tend not to think of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) as a lyric poet, but more as a kind of story-teller in verse whose strengths lay in narrative and characterisation but who rarely achieved, or even tried for, that concentrated essence of language one looks for in lyric poetry. Yet there is this passage from the end of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, where the dying Arcite speaks a farewell to his love Emily. I suppose it is standard enough stuff for the time, but there are two lines in it that I find quite haunting: ‘But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost/To yow aboven every creature.’ Possibly this too was a standard conceit, as a better mediaeval scholar than I might know, and yet, asking myself why I should find them so affecting, I realise it is because they express for me something quintessential about the craft we practise, about that state of grace that poets, who tend by nature to be selfish or at least  self-preoccupied creatures, may nonetheless enter when, desiring nothing except to be of use, they offer the service of their spirit to something beloved, something beyond themselves.

I don’t know how much ‘The Canterbury Tales’ are read for pleasure these days. A pity if not: the language, once you get accustomed to the antique spelling, is far more straightforward than, say, a good deal of Shakespeare. You do need to do a bit of cherry picking though – some of the tales, like Chaucer’s own, are definite duds; others, like ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, have a bit too much mediaeval baggage. I think ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ makes a good sampling point: this is the one where three men, having heard that one of their comrades has died, set out to kill that ‘privee theef men clepeth Deeth/That in this contree al the people sleeth’. It does not end well for them.

From ‘The Knight’s Tale’

Thanne seyde he thus, as ye shal after heere:
‘Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte
Declare o point of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love moost.
But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost
To yow aboven every creature.
Syn that my lyf may no lenger dure,
Allas, the wo! Allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! Allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departynge of our compaignye!
Allas, myn hertes queene! allas, my wyf!
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Fare-wel, my swete foo, myn Emelye!’

Geoffrey Chaucer

Week 550: Will Ye Go Lassie Go, by Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

I had always thought of ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’, aka ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, as a quintessential folksong, possessed of anonymous purity, a little mysterious, a little magical, never dating but instead, as it recedes into the mists of time, accruing to itself an ever-increasing charge of power from all those who have performed it, listened to it and loved it over the years. It seems, however, that this particular song has a definite origin: the lyrics and melody are based on the song ‘The Braes of Balquhither’ by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but in their present form, as covered by countless folk artists, were adapted by the Irish musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.

Anonymous or not, I feel that the second stanza in particular manages to tap into some resonant stratum of Celtic myth, having for me faint echoes of the Fourth Branch of the Welsh ‘Mabinogion’ where the wizard Gwydion and Math fab Mathonwy conjure up a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes: ‘and they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and made from them the fairest maiden that was ever seen by man’. It seems possible that Alan Garner made the same association when he chose it as an epigraph to his fine contemporary reworking of that story, ‘The Owl Service’, though he has a slightly different version of the words e.g. ‘tower’ for ‘bower’, and ascribes it to ‘Traditional’.

Of those countless performances, I might make special mention of one from the Transatlantic Sessions featuring Dick Gaughan, Emmylou Harris and the McGarrigle family. Now that’s what you call a line-up.

Will Ye Go Lassie Go

Oh, the summer time is coming,
And the leaves are sweetly blooming,
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

I will build my love a bower
By yon clear crystal fountain,
And around it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

If my true love will not go,   
I will surely find another
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.

Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

Week 549: Le Dernier Poème, by Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos (1900-1945) was a French poet who began his poetic career as a surrealist, associated with such poets as Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, but in his later work evolved a plainer, more direct style. In the Second World War he was much involved with the French Resistance, and was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sent first to Auschwitz, and then transferred to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. He survived long enough to be liberated, but had contracted typhoid and died shortly afterwards.

This poem, though one of his most famous and best-loved, is a bit of an oddity in that it never actually existed as such. It began life as the last stanza of a longer poem, ‘A La Mystérieuse’, written about the singer Yvonne George, for whom he nursed an unrequited passion. When he died, the lines were quoted in a Czech obituary, which was then mistranslated back into French in a way that gave rise to the belief that this was a poem in its own right, and the last one Desnos wrote as a farewell to his wife Youki.

I am not sure how proper it is to override authorial intent, but the fact is that these detached lines work better for me as a poem without the more florid preceding stanzas of the original, so I present them here without too much compunction.

The translation that follows is my own.

Le Dernier Poème

J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi,
J’ai tellement marché, tellement parlé,
Tellement aimé ton ombre,
Qu’il ne me reste plus rien de toi.

Il me reste d’être l’ombre parmi les ombres,
D’être cent fois plus ombre que l’ombre,
D’être l’ombre qui viendra et reviendra
Dans ta vie ensoleillée.

Robert Desnos

The Last Poem

I have so dreamed of you,
I have so walked, so talked with you,
So greatly loved your shadow,
That there is nothing left to me of you.

And what is left to me
Is to be a shadow among shades,
A hundred times more shadow than the shade,
To be the shadow that will come and come
Into your sunlit life.

Week 548: The Good Morrow, by John Donne

It is entirely reasonable that when it comes to poetic taste the circle of admiration should be far more encompassing than the circle of love, and while for me John Donne (1572-1631) certainly falls well within the former circle, I cannot quite bring myself to place him in the latter. This week’s poem has so much going for it: wit, dexterity, a lively conversational idiom, and for some a pleasing element of intellectual challenge in its references and conceits, though others may feel that in the last verse in particular Donne loses his way in a maze of metaphors. So what does it lack? For me, I suppose, the conviction that Donne is concerned with real love for another human being, rather than using a slightly simulated extravagance of passion as a vehicle for a bit of poetry. This is poetry that stimulates the intellect but does not engage the emotions, and I want a poem to do both.

I compare it with poems like William Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’ (see week 31) and ‘The Wife A-lost’ (see week 176). Now these for me hit you in the solar plexus and knock the wind out of you, and with Donne’s poem I feel no such impact. I am not saying that Barnes is a greater poet than Donne – there are other factors to be considered, like influence and centrality. And anyway who cares about labels and precedences, there are just poems, and maybe our reactions to them are, and indeed should be, far more personal and circumstantial than any attempt to impose a formal discipline of ‘poetry appreciation’ on the matter can allow for.

Note: The Seven Sleepers: in mediaeval legend, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus were Christian youths who hid in a cave to escape the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius (250 CE) and fell into a miraculous sleep. There is an implicit comparison between their wonder on waking and Donne’s own as he progresses from mere carnal love to the ‘agapic’ or spiritual love felt by their ‘waking souls’.

The Good Morrow

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snored we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be:
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our twoloves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

John Donne

Week 547: Into my heart an air that kills, by A.E.Housman

Much as I have always admired George Orwell’s lucid prose, I have the feeling that he didn’t really ‘get’ poetry. There is evidence for this in his novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, where he tries to get inside the head of his poet character Gordon Comstock (unlike the more prudent P.D.James who, as far as I recall, never made any attempt to demonstrate her detective poet Adam Dalgliesh’s prowess in his alternative occupation). It is clear that Orwell thought of poetry as some trick of thinking rather than a way of being – definitely a case of ‘Don’t give up the day job, Gordon’.

Orwell was, it seems to me, particularly wrong-headed about A.E.Housman in one of his essays in ‘Inside The Whale’. To quote: ‘In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression the Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever — probably that would be about all…. It just tinkles’.

Well, I was about seventeen in 1961 when I first read that essay, and also about seventeen when I first read Housman, and it struck me even at the time that it was a pity Orwell couldn’t have asked me – did he really think that seventeen year olds, as least those uncorrupted by any literary ideology, differed so much from generation to generation? No, it didn’t just tinkle then, and it doesn’t now, and I am pleased to observe that Housman has continued to occupy a high place in the regard not only of the public but also of many of my fellow-poets, so sucks to you, Orwell.

All of which is a preamble to presenting one of his best-loved lyrics, a perfect distillation of that emotion which the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, a little more than mere nostalgia, an intense love and longing for a lost place, a lost culture, a lost past.


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.


Week 546: Pied Beauty, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Some years ago I stayed with my family on holiday at Arthog in North Wales, just across the Mawddach estuary from Barmouth, and one of the walks we took was along the old railway track, now converted to a footpath, to Penmaenpool. The railway was opened in 1865, but fell victim to Dr Beeching in the sixties. In the old days it was evidently a treat in the area to take a picnic on the round trip: up to Harlech, then to Minfford, by the Ffestiniog line to Blaenau Ffestiniog, to Bala and back to Dolgellau. Bonneted ladies, men in light suits, excited children, picnic baskets, glimpses of the sea, seeds of willowherb drifting in through the open windows, turning and twinkling in the sun… But all the track long taken up now, grass and moss encroaching on the limestone chippings, willows leaning over, a tangle of soapwort and goldenrod and everlasting pea, and the evening quiet under cloud, only the oystercatchers calling as darkness falls.

Anyway, on a placard in the old signal-box at Penmaenpool, now converted to a bird-hide, I came across a verse which Gerard Manley Hopkins inscribed in the hotel guest book after a stay here:

 ‘Then come who pine for peace and pleasure
Away from counter, court and school,
Spend here your measure of time and treasure
And taste the joys of Penmaenpool.’

O G.M.H, I thought, what a totally undistinguished quatrain! That’s what comes of feeling obligated to say something, or being tempted by a slight vanity – because you always knew what you were worth, didn’t you, even if this particular verse doesn’t show it, and even if no one else at the time knew. So, I thought, you stood here too and watched the light change on the wooded slopes opposite, and the quiet water brimming up the estuary. I didn’t know what to say to your ghost, except glory be to God for you too, and thanks for poems as original and beautiful as this one.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
  And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
  Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Week 545: Adjustment, by Molly Holden

I suspect that although they may been far more fortunate than Molly Holden in the matter of health, many people will still identify with the sentiments of this poem in one way or another. Personally it is a long time since I had any vanity about my appearance, but I confess to resenting bitterly the inevitable decline in my physical powers, such as they were. This was brought sharply into focus last month when I was laid low by an amazingly incapacitating attack of what turned out to be polymyalgia rheumatica, fortunately soon treated once properly diagnosed. I could myself manage nothing more dignified in response than an existential howl: ‘So only a month ago I could still do thirty pushups and run a decent 5K, and now I can’t even get up out of a f—king armchair!?’. Molly handles the subject with rather more grace and wit, though certainly with no less rue.


I thought my bones would last. Good bones I’d read,
preserve the beauty of an aged head,
and so I hoped my structure might remain
shapely, whatever age I might attain.

Skulls do not change but I’d not gauged the force
of time correctly, reckoned without the coarse
deposit of disease and grief – the double chin,
the softer jowls of middle-age, the cobwebbed skin,
that now have overlaid the thirtied grace
of what was once a pleasing enough face.

What the mirror tells me must be true. Shoulder,
breast, and sight confirm I’m getting older.

Now my portrait of myself must change, truth
forgo the bright advantages of youth.
My children see me comfortable and kind –
so there’s my present image right to mind.
Shape’s hoped endurance must be laid aside
and any slighter beauty that was cause for pride.

Now only I shall ever see
the fine-boned crone I’d thought to be.

Molly Holden

Week 544: L’enfance, by Victor Hugo

This poem by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was inspired by witnessing the death of Mme Ginestat, a neighbour of Hugo’s on Jersey, who died of tuberculosis in 1855. In his collection ‘Les Contemplations’ Hugo antedated the composition of the poem to well before the event that had inspired it because he wanted it to seem as if it foreshadowed the death of his own child Léopoldine: I don’t really approve of such manipulation but I guess it’s a very small deceit on the scale of what some poets get up to!

The translation that follows is my own.


L’enfant chantait; la mère au lit, exténuée,
Agonisait, beau front dans l’ombre se penchant;
La mort au-dessus d’elle errait dans la nuée;
Et j’écoutais ce râle, et j’entendais ce chant.

L’enfant avait cinq ans, et près de la fenêtre
Ses rires et ses jeux faisaient un charmant bruit;
Et la mère, à côté de ce pauvre doux être
Qui chantait tout le jour, toussait toute la nuit.

La mère alla dormir sous les dalles du cloître;
Et le petit enfant se remit à chanter…
La douleur est un fruit; Dieu ne le fait pas croître
Sur la branche trop faible encor pour le porter.

Victor Hugo


The child sang; and the mother on the bed,
Her fair face turned to shadow, suffered long.
Death hovered in the cloud above her head.
I heard her rattling breath, heard the child’s song.

The child was five years old; there by the window
Its play and laughter made a charming sight;
The mother, next to that poor gentle creature
Who sang all day, was coughing all the night.

In cloister laid, she slept at last below
Stone slabs; the singing did not long abate…
Grief is a fruit; God does not let it grow
Upon a branch too frail yet for such weight.