Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In Memory Of Ivor Gurney

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the death of Ivor Gurney:  he passed away on December 26, 1937, at the age of 47.  We are naturally drawn to Gurney as a person:  his life is compelling, harrowing, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  Given the biographical facts, it is tempting to caricature him as any (or all) of the following:  a "war poet," a "mad poet," or a "troubled genius" (as both a poet and a composer).  But that would be a disservice both to Gurney as a person and to his art.

His life does attract our attention, and I am not suggesting we should disregard it.  But, in reading his poetry (and in listening to his music), it is perhaps best to think of him simply as a soul who loved life and loved the World.  And that love began and ended with England and with, above all else, his native Gloucestershire.


Only the wanderer
     Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
     Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
     That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
     O Severn meadows.

Ivor Gurney,  Severn & Somme (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

Alfred Thornton (1863-1939), "The Upper Severn"

"And who loves joy as he/That dwells in shadows?"  He knew exactly where he stood.  This is what breaks our heart.  Yet he knew this as well:

        The Songs I Had

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For others' delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). The poem appears in a notebook that Gurney used between 1921 and 1922. Ibid, page 100.  It was not published during his lifetime.

Looking back, I see that Gurney's poems have appeared here in twenty or so posts over the years.  We owe it to him to never forget, and to keep alive, his "bright tracks" and his "flowers."  Here are a few:  "The Escape;" "The Wind;" "Brimscombe;" "The Shelter from the Storm;" "Soft rain beats upon my windows;" "First Time In."

Parta Quies.  "Sleep on, sleep sound."

Alfred Thornton, "Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire"

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"A Merry Christmas, Friend!"

Our experience of Christmas changes as we grow older.  I am not speaking of historical accidents and aberrations such as, for instance, self-regarding modern irony, or the equally self-regarding Christmas policing activities of cultural scolds.  They are of no moment.

I was 7 years old in 1963 when Andy Williams first sang "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."  I still love that song.  As a child, I sang "Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night" in a choir of shepherds in a Christmas pageant that took place in a Lutheran church on a dark night in winter-bound Minnesota.  And that's that.  Some memories are not for the discarding.

The delight does not change.  But there is a movement from the joy of receiving, to the joy of giving, and, finally (if we are fortunate), to the joy of simply being present in the World at such a time.  A time for gratitude and for reflection.  But an effort is required, and, speaking for myself, the effort often falls short.  But the breathtaking pause -- fragile light fluttering in the darkness -- calls for our attention.

     Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

It is late afternoon on Christmas Eve as I write this.  Half an hour ago, the snow began to fall.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

Light persisting in, and emerging out of, darkness.  Flickering.  Coming and going.  Like a human soul.


The rain-shafts splintered on me
     As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
     And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
     By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
     In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
     "A merry Christmas, friend!" --
There rose a figure by me,
     Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's, who, breaking
     Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
     Toward the Casuals' gate.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (Macmillan 1928).

"The Casuals' gate" was an entry to the "Union House" (the workhouse) in Dorchester.  "In Hardy's time any 'casual' (pauper or tramp) could apply to the police for a ticket, with which he would be admitted for supper, a bed, and breakfast."  J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 581.

The snow continues to fall.

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "Christmas" (1929)

Monday, December 18, 2017


I have never been to the Orkney Islands, but I have the impression that it is a world marked by a sharp contrast between darkness and light.  This impression is based upon the poems of George Mackay Brown.  Brown meditates upon this contrast as it evolves through each of the seasons, but he has a particular affinity for the deepening darkness and the frail light of the winter solstice and Christmas.

       Maeshowe:  Midwinter

Equinox to Hallowmas, darkness
     falls like the leaves.  The
     tree of the sun is stark.

On the loom of winter, shadows
     gather in a web;  then the
     shuttle of St Lucy makes a
     pause; a dark weave
     fills the loom.

The blackness is solid as a
     stone that locks a tomb.
     No star shines there.

Then begins the true ceremony of
     the sun, when the one
     last fleeting solstice flame
     is caught up by a
     midnight candle.

Children sing under a street
     lamp, their voices like
     leaves of light.

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Maeshowe (also known as "Maes Howe") is a chambered tomb located on the island of Mainland in the Orkneys.  It is believed to have been constructed around 2800 B.C. (or thereabouts).  In the twelfth century, it was broken into by Vikings, who left behind runic inscriptions.  "St Lucy" (line 6) refers to Saint Lucy (Saint Lucia), a Christian martyr who was blinded and murdered in 304 A.D. in a Roman persecution.  Her feast day is December 13, although there was a time when it coincided with the winter solstice.  She is associated with light, and is sometimes depicted holding a lamp or a candle, or wearing a crown of candles.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Snow Falling on a Town"

The beautiful (but oftentimes harsh) particulars of the Orcadian natural world are concretely and palpably present in every poem that George Mackay Brown wrote.  But that beauty and that harshness would count for nothing without the Orcadian human world with which the natural world is twinned and entwined.  There is nothing parochial or alien about the world of Orkney brought to us by Brown:  it is our world.  We simply were never aware of it.

           Stars and Fish

The sky shoal is out tonight,
        Stars in a surge!

Two fish on a blue plate
For one croft, for the great world-hunger.

George Mackay Brown, from a five-poem sequence titled "Five Christmas Stars" in Following a Lark.

Reading Brown's poetry, one often feels that the natural world and the human world have merged, or, put differently, that they exist separately, but in perfect consonance.  These lines by Wordsworth come to mind:

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

"A soul which makes all one."


No more fishing till after Yule.
        Will glimmer silent through cold gray halls.
The tractor is locked in the barn
With a sack of seed.

The hill humps like a white whale.

The glim of one star
        On a shore boulder, where the ebb begins.

George Mackay Brown, Ibid.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

At this time of year, the sun stays in the lower reaches of the southeastern and southwestern sky.  Travelling along a low arc, it seems to barely clear the horizon.  On sunny days, the empty trees cast beautiful, heartbreakingly long shadows across the meadows from early morning until nightfall. People cross the shadows, walking their dogs.  One feels the need for light.


The lamp is needful in spring, still,
Though the jar of daffodils
Outsplendours lamplight and hearthflames.

In summer, only near midnight
Is match struck to wick.
A moth, maybe, troubles the rag of flame.

Harvest.  The lamp in the window
Summons the scythe-men.
A school-book lies on the sill, two yellow halves.

In December the lamp's a jewel,
The hearth ingots and incense.
A cold star travels across the pane.

George Mackay Brown, Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Evening Snow at Takanawa"

These essential human needs have never changed, have they?  No anthropological, historical, or theological explanation is necessary.  In my country, many of the houses in my neighborhood are now bright with Christmas lights strung along the eaves and on the branches of trees in the front yards.  If you take a walk at night, you will see a Christmas tree shining within nearly every living room, casting light out into the darkness.  This is part of the definition of civilization.

     Lux Perpetua

A star for a cradle

Sun for plough and net

A fire for old stories

A candle for the dead


Lux perpetua
By such glimmers we seek you.

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark.

I spent my childhood in the lost world of Minnesota in the 1950s and early 1960s.  It was a Scandinavian-American world.  Most of my ancestors were Swedish, and they brought their traditions with them to this land.  Each Christmas Eve, my maternal grandmother lit four white candles.  The gold angels began to circle and chime.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"