Sunday, June 1, 2014


Given that windmills were the subject of my previous post, I ought to consider watermills as well.  Those that were once bustling, but are now abandoned, have often been an evocative subject for poets.

          Requiem for a Mill

They took away the water-wheel,
Scrap-ironed all the corn-mill;
The water now cascades with no
Audience pacing to and fro
Taking in with casual glance

The cold wet blustery winter day
And all that's happening will stay
Alive in the mind: the bleak
Water-flushed meadows speak
An enduring story
To a man indifferent in a doorway.

Packaged, pre-cooked flakes have left
A land of that old mill bereft.
The ghosts that were so local coloured
Hiding behind bags of pollard
Have gone from those empty walls.
The weir still curves its waterfalls
But lets them drop in the tailrace
No longer wildly chivalrous.

And with this mention we withdraw
To things above the temporal law.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960).

Stanley Bryan, "Botley Flour Mill Loading Barn" (1955)

Like Kavanagh, Edward Thomas notices the ghostly feel of an idle mill.

                    The Mill-Water

Only the sound remains
Of the old mill;
Gone is the wheel;
On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.

Water that toils no more
Dangles white locks
And, falling, mocks
The music of the mill-wheel's busy roar.

Pretty to see, by day
Its sound is naught
Compared with thought
And talk and noise of labour and of play.

Night makes the difference.
In calm moonlight,
Gloom infinite,
The sound comes surging in upon the sense:

Solitude, company, --
When it is night, --
Grief or delight
By it must haunted or concluded be.

Often the silentness
Has but this one
Wherever one creeps in the other is:

Sometimes a thought is drowned
By it, sometimes
Out of it climbs;
All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,

Only the idle foam
Of water falling
Changelessly calling,
Where once men had a work-place and a home.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Perhaps I am overreaching, but I hear in the fifth stanza a hint of what was to come in Thomas's second-to-last poem.  The poem has appeared here before, but here is its final stanza:

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Edward Thomas, "Out in the Dark," Ibid.

In connection with "The Mill-Water," Edna Longley points us to a prose passage by Thomas about "a lifeless mill":

"Each evening, just when the first nightjar was skimming the wood, the sedge-warblers began to sing all together round the pool.  The song might have been the abstract voice of some old pain, feebly persistent.  It went far into the night with a power of ghostly alarms, and attuned to such thoughts as come when night in certain places is malign, reverses the sweet work of the day, and gives the likeness of a dragon to the pleasant corner of a wood. The birds were full of prelusive dark sayings about the approaching night."

Ibid, page 253, quoting from Edward Thomas, "Isoud with the White Hands," Horae Solitariae (1902), pages 178-179.

"Prelusive dark sayings about the approaching night" is wonderful, isn't it?

George Vicat Cole, "Iffley Mill" (1884)

The following poem could pass for a haiku, save for its length, and save for the fact that it was written in Victorian England.

                       A Mill

Two leaps the water from its race
     Made to the brook below,
The first leap it was curving glass,
     The second bounding snow.

William Allingham, By the Way: Verses, Fragments, and Notes (1912).

John Aldridge, "Old Mill, West Harnham" (1948)


Sam Vega said...

Some very nice stuff there. Do you know Fredegond Shove's poem which supplied the lyrics for a superb Vaughan Williams song?

A different mood altogether, but worth reading. I don't know if you like music, but worth listening to as well, as RVW sets it beautifully.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: as always, thank you for stopping by.

I was not aware of the poem, nor of the song setting. Thank you for sharing them. Thanks to you and other readers, I have been receiving an introduction to the great number of poems set to music by early- to mid-20th century English composers. It is an entirely new body of work for me.

Thanks again.