Monday, July 29, 2013

"All Poetry Is In A Sense Love-Poetry"

John Clare and Edward Thomas were both inveterate ramblers of the countryside.  Hence, it is not surprising that their poetic paths sometimes cross.

                         Stone Pit

The passing traveller with wonder sees
A deep and ancient stone pit full of trees
So deep and very deep the place has been
The church might stand within and not be seen
The passing stranger oft with wonder stops
And thinks he een could walk upon their tops
And often stoops to see the busy crow
And stands above and sees the eggs below
And while the wild horse gives his head a toss
The squirrel dances up and runs across
The boy that stands and kills the black nosed bee
Dares down as soon as magpies nests are found
And wonders when he climbs the highest tree
To find it reaches scarce above the ground

John Clare, Major Works (edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell) (Oxford University Press 2004).  Spelling (e.g., "een" in line 6) and punctuation (or the lack thereof) are as they appear in Clare's original handwritten manuscript.

John Linnell, "Windsor Forest" (1834)

        The Hollow Wood

Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish --
Fish that laugh and shriek --
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.

Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog's-mercury and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.

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

"Where birds swim like fish" is especially nice.

John Linnell, "Reapers, Noonday Rest" (1865)

In the course of a discussion of Clare's poetry, Thomas wrote this about poetry in general:

"It is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial.  Hence the strangeness and thrill and painful delight of poetry at all times, and the deep response to it of youth and of love; and because love is wild, strange, and full of astonishment, is one reason why poetry deals so much in love, and why all poetry is in a sense love-poetry."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on  the Poets (1910), pages 86-87.

I have previously posted Clare's poem "Love lives beyond the tomb," together with a fine commentary on it by Thomas.

John Linnell, "Harvest Home, Sunset: The Last Load" (1853)

Friday, July 26, 2013

"That Yew-Tree's Shade"

I haven't done the research, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone has written a book (or at least a long essay) about yew trees in churchyards in English literature.  The association between yews and death (as well as immortality) is a long one, and crosses cultural boundaries.  But it is especially prevalent in English poetry.

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is a natural place to start:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Stanley Spencer, "The Vale of Health, Hampstead" (c. 1940)

Did Thomas Hardy have Gray's "yew-tree's shade" in mind when he wrote the closing lines of the following poem?

                                    Lying Awake

You, Morningtide Star, now are steady-eyed, over the east,
     I know it as if I saw you;
You, Beeches, engrave on the sky your thin twigs, even the least;
     Had I paper and pencil I'd draw you.

You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew,
     I see it as if I were there;
You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew,
     The names creeping out everywhere.

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

Putting aside yews for a moment, notice the downward movement of the poem:  from the Morningtide Star in the sky, to the twigs of the Beeches against the sky, to the earth of the Meadow, and then to the Churchyard, with its graves.  "The names creeping out everywhere" is marvelous, isn't it? The combination of emotional impact and exactly-accurate description (picture in your mind's eye the engraved names on the tombstones gradually becoming more distinct as the sun rises -- the shadows in the recessed letters) is wonderful.  It is one of Hardy's finest lines, I think.

Stanley Spencer, "Port Glasgow Cemetery" (1957)

On a more humorous note, here is the final stanza (fittingly) of Louis MacNeice's "Tree Party":

Your health, Master Yew.  My bones are few
And I fully admit my rent is due,
But do not be vexed, I will postdate a cheque for you.

Louis MacNeice, The Burning Perch (1963).

Stanley Spencer, "Rock Gardens, Cookham Dean" (1940-1947)

                         The Yew

The moon gave no light.
The clouds rode slowly over, broad and white,
From the soft south west.
The wind, that cannot rest,
Soothed and then waked the darkness of the yew
Until the tree was restless too.

Of all the winds I knew
I thought, and how they muttered in the yew,
Or raved under the eaves,
Or nosed the fallen dry leaves,
Or with harsh voice holloa'd the orchard round,
With snapped limbs littering the ground.

And I thought how the yew
Between the window and the west his shadow threw,
Grave and immense,
Darkening the dark past thought and sense,
And how the moon would make the darkness heavenly bright:
But the moon gave no light.

John Freeman, Poems New and Old (1920).

Stanley Spencer, "Landscape, Cookham Dean" (c. 1939)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How To Live, Part Twenty-One: "He Never Expected Much"

My previous post contained five epitaphs written by Thomas Hardy.  I suggested that two of them -- "A Placid Man's Epitaph" and "Epitaph" (which begins: "I never cared for Life: Life cared for me") -- were descriptive of Hardy himself.  My suggestion was based upon, among other things, the following poem, which was published after his death.  But this sort of sentiment can be found throughout Hardy's poetry.

          He Never Expected Much

Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
                    Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
          Much as you said you were.
Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
          That life would all be fair.

'Twas then you said, and since have said,
                    Times since have said,
In that mysterious voice you shed
          From clouds and hills around:
'Many have loved me desperately,
Many with smooth serenity,
While some have shown contempt of me
          Till they dropped underground.

'I do not promise overmuch,
                    Child; overmuch;
Just neutral-tinted haps and such,'
          You said to minds like mine.
Wise warning for your credit's sake!
Which I for one failed not to take,
And hence could stem such strain and ache
          As each year might assign.

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

John Gray Higgins, "Northamptonshire Churchyard"

Hardy died on January 11, 1928.  The poem was first published in The Daily Telegraph on March 19, 1928.  When it was published in book form later that year, it contained the following subtitle: "[or] A Consideration [A Reflection] on My Eighty-Sixth Birthday."  Hardy never decided upon the final version of the subtitle prior to his death:  the words in italics represent an alternative version.

"Just neutral-tinted haps and such" (line 19) brings to mind two of Hardy's earliest poems:  "Neutral Tones" ("We stood by a pond that winter day,/And the sun was white, as though chidden of God . . .") and "Hap" (with its references to "Crass Casualty," "dicing Time," and "purblind Doomsters"). Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898).

"Leaze" (line 6) is "pasture; pasturage; meadow-land; common."  OED.  It    -- along with "lea" -- is a word that Hardy used on more than one occasion.  (For instance, in the poem entitled "In a Eweleaze near Weatherbury.")  "Lea" appears in the following poem, which is reminiscent of the image that appears in lines 5 and 6:  "as a child I used to lie/Upon the leaze and watch the sky."

Bertram Nicholls (1883-1974)
"A Lych Gate, Steyning, Sussex"

          Childhood Among the Ferns

I sat one sprinkling day upon the lea,
Where tall-stemmed ferns spread out luxuriantly,
And nothing but those tall ferns sheltered me.

The rain gained strength, and damped each lopping frond,
Ran down their stalks beside me and beyond,
And shaped slow-creeping rivulets as I conned,

With pride, my spray-roofed house.  And though anon
Some drops pierced its green rafters, I sat on,
Making pretence I was not rained upon.

The sun then burst, and brought forth a sweet breath
From the limp ferns as they dried underneath:
I said:  'I could live on here thus till death;'

And queried in the green rays as I sate:
'Why should I have to grow to man's estate,
And this afar-noised World perambulate?'

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

"The green rays" (line 13) is lovely, I think.  The idea of dwelling forever within the shelter of the ferns reminds me of Robert Devereux's "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert," particularly its closing lines:  "Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,/Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."

W. Dodd, "A Lincolnshire Church" (1949)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Trees And Epitaphs

This afternoon I walked down a green tunnel of trees.  Is there anything lovelier than to stand beneath a tree in summer looking up through the interlaced leaves into a blue sky?  Especially if the leaves are rustling in a breeze?  I can think of no better way to spend Eternity.

Which leads me to Thomas Hardy.  Although I don't know why.

John Constable, "Malvern Hall, Warwickshire" (1809)

     A Necessitarian's Epitaph

A world I did not wish to enter
Took me and poised me on my centre,
Made me grimace, and foot, and prance,
As cats on hot bricks have to dance
Strange jigs to keep them from the floor,
Till they sink down and feel no more.

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

J. M. W. Turner
"Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland" (c. 1798)

        Epitaph on a Pessimist

I'm Smith of Stoke, aged sixty-odd,
     I've lived without a dame
From youth-time on; and would to God
     My dad had done the same.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

Hardy includes this note to the poem: "From the French and Greek."  Hardy owned a copy of J. W. Mackail's Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1906), which contains the following translation of a Greek epitaph:  "I Dionysius of Tarsus lie here at sixty, having never married; and I would that my father had not."  J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (1970), page 557.  "Dionysius of Tarsus" becomes "Smith of Stoke" in order to bring us up-to-date.

Hardy's sympathetic reading of Schopenhauer is perhaps reflected in "Epitaph on a Pessimist."  Schopenhauer opined that, when all is said and done, not having been born may have been the best option for us.  Giacomo Leopardi, who Schopenhauer admired, came to the same conclusion.  Yes, it sounds harrowing, doesn't it?  But, when you read Schopenhauer and Leopardi, they are two extremely jolly fellows, and are quite entertaining about the whole business.

          Cynic's Epitaph

A race with the sun as he downed
          I ran at evetide,
Intent who should first gain the ground
          And there hide.

He beat me by some minutes then,
          But I triumphed anon,
For when he'd to rise up again
          I stayed on.

Thomas Hardy, Ibid.

"Epitaph on a Pessimist" and "Cynic's Epitaph" were published together in the September, 1925, issue of The London Mercury, when Hardy was 85.

George Lambert, 
"View of Copped Hall in Essex, from Across the Lake" (1746)

Hardy wrote all of these epitaphs when he was in his eighties.  Thus, he would seem to be trying them on for himself.  But we are all cynics and pessimists and necessitarians at some point in our lives, aren't we?  For all of Hardy's supposed pessimism, his compassion for, and his empathy with, his fellow human beings never wavered.  The epitaphs are for him and for each of us.

     A Placid Man's Epitaph

As for my life, I've led it
With fair content and credit:
It said: 'Take this.'  I took it.
Said: 'Leave.'  And I forsook it.
If I had done without it
None would have cared about it,
Or said: 'One has refused it
Who might have meetly used it.'

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

Francis Towne, "Haldon Hall, near Exeter" (1780)


I never cared for Life: Life cared for me,
And hence I owed it some fidelity.
It now says, 'Cease; at length thou hast learnt to grind
Sufficient toll for an unwilling mind,
And I dismiss thee -- not without regard
That thou didst ask no ill-advised reward,
Nor sought in me much more than thou couldst find.'

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922). "Toll" (line 4) is "a proportion of the grain or flour taken by the miller in payment for grinding."  OED.

I think that the final two epitaphs best describe Hardy himself.

John Glover, "Thirlmere" (c. 1820)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Window

"Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."

This statement has appeared here before, but it is one that is worth revisiting on a regular basis.  Our "modern" world is entirely at odds with the sentiment expressed therein.  Our "modern" preoccupation is explanation.  If only we can explain something, all will be well.  And who are the explainers?  The usual utopian suspects: scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, and those who think of themselves (with a great deal of self-regard and without irony) as "progressives."

"It is all one to me whether or not the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work, since he will not in any case understand the spirit in which I write.  Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.' Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure.  And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself.  For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in and of themselves."

George Price Boyce
"Newcastle from the Rabbit Banks, Gateshead-on-Tyne" (1864)

Put another way:

"I was walking about in Cambridge and passed a bookshop, and in the window were portraits of [Bertrand] Russell, Freud and Einstein.  A little further on, in a music shop, I saw portraits of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.  Comparing these portraits I felt intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years."

So, what is one to do?  For a start:  ignore anyone who purports to provide you with an explanation of anything.  (Particularly if they believe that their explanation will make the world a "better" place to live.)  All that we need to "know" is right there in front of us:  out there in the World, where no explanations are necessary.

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

                         The Window

Sunlit, the lashes fringe the half-closed eyes
With hues no bow excels that spans the skies;
As magical the meteor's flight o'erhead,
And daybreak shimmering on a spider's thread . . .
Thou starry Universe -- whose breadth, depth, height
Contracts to such strait entry as mere sight!

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (1938).

George Price Boyce, "Tithe Barn" (c. 1878)

     The View from the Window

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests.  Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart.  All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; yet what eye,
Looking coolly, or, as we now,
Through the tears' lenses, ever saw
This work and it was not finished?

R. S. Thomas, Song at the Year's Turning (1955).

A note:  the quotations at the beginning of this post are all from Ludwig Wittgenstein, in this order:  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.44 (translation by C. K. Ogden) (an alternative translation, by David Pears and Brian McGuinness, is: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists"); draft of foreword to Philosophical Remarks, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (1980) (translated by Peter Winch), page 7e ; Maurice Drury, "Conversations with Wittgenstein," The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein (Thoemmes Press 1996), page 112.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I readily admit that I cannot come up with a unifying theme that brilliantly ties together all of the following poems.  I have encountered them by chance over the years, and now they have come to be associated with one another in my mind.  What do they share?  A single word.

          The Prisoners

Somehow we never escaped
Into the sunlight,
Though the gates were always unbarred
And the warders tight.
For the sketches on the walls
Were to our liking,
And squeaks from the torture-cell
Most satisfying.

James Reeves, Subsong (Heinemann 1969).

I suppose that Plato's cave may come to mind.  Although, as soon as I come up with something like that, I cringe.  No allusion-hunting or symbol-mongering permitted.  Belay that explication!

Albert Scott Cox (1863-1920), "French Farm"

          So Long in Prison

Sunlight on the shore proclaims:
This is your day of liberation.
The south wind has a handshake for
The lean prisoner with haunted eyes.

Should not your voice, so long in prison,
Be raucous as a gull's?
But hear what song those wings
Carving the vacant spaces of the air
Raise like a statue to this day's release.

James Reeves, Ibid.

The two poems appear side-by-side in Subsong.

Dane Maw, "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)

A Sorrowful Sigh of a Prisoner

Lord, comest Thou to me?
     My heart is cold and dead:
Alas that such a heart should be
     The place to lay Thy head!

Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (edited by R. W. Crump and Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001).

On the surface, Rossetti's devotional verse seems to have a great deal of certainty about it.  But, when read in the context of her non-religious verse, a tension becomes noticeable -- something to do with the heart versus the soul, I would guess.

David Chatterton (1900-1963), "River Scene with Bridge"

                                 Here Lies a Prisoner

                 Leave him: he's quiet enough: and what matter
                 Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
     that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                                      Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000). In the original, the third line is a single line.  However, due to margin limitations, it does not appear as such here.

This is the sort of breathtaking poem that makes one wonder why Charlotte Mew's poetry is not better known.  Further, such a wondrous thing gives one pause:  what might English (and American) poetry be like now if Mew and Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney and Wilfred Owen had lived long and healthy lives?

Delmar Harmood Banner
"Yews in Mardale Churchyard before Destruction" (1945)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"Untroubling, And Untroubled Where I Lie, The Grass Below -- Above The Vaulted Sky"

The following poem is perhaps John Clare's best-known poem.  This is ironic, because it is not really typical of his poetry.  Yet there is no gainsaying its emotional impact.

I am -- yet what I am, none cares or knows;
     My friends forsake me like a memory lost:--
I am the self-consumer of my woes:--
     They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes:--
And yet I am, and live -- like vapours tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, --
     Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
     But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange -- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
     A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God;
     And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below -- above the vaulted sky.

John Clare, in Eric Robinson, David Powell, and Margaret Grainger (editors), The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864, Volume I (Oxford University Press 1984).

As I say, "I am . . ." is uncharacteristic of Clare.  He was not what we moderns would call a "confessional" poet.  He usually kept his counsel. (Which, in my humble opinion, is something that we all ought to do more often.)  The next poem catches his character quite well, I think.

Tristram Hillier, "Cutler's Green" (1944)

                         To John Clare

Well honest John how fare you now at home?
The spring is come and birds are building nests
The old cock robin to the stye is come
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast
And the old cock with wattles and red comb
Struts with the hens and seems to like some best
Then crows and looks about for little crumbs
Swept out by little folks an hour ago
The pigs sleep in the sty the bookman comes
The little boys lets home close nesting go
And pockets tops and tawes where daiseys bloom
To look at the new number just laid down
With lots of pictures and good stories too
And Jack the Giant-killer's high renown.

John Clare, Ibid, Volume II.  The spelling and punctuation are as they appear in Clare's original handwritten manuscript.  "The new number just laid down" (line 12) refers to a newly-published children's book or magazine sold by the bookman.

During his periods of madness, Clare sometimes spoke of a "John Clare" who was someone other than himself.  In this poem, "John Clare" makes an appearance as a younger version of the John Clare who is now residing in an asylum.  One feels the happiness and the innocence of the young and vanished "John Clare," but one also feels the sense of loss, and the longing, of the present-day John Clare dwelling against his will in a madhouse.  Or perhaps I am reading more into the poem than I ought to.

Tristram Hillier, "The Argument" (1943)

Clare's "I am . . ." brings to mind a remarkably (and eerily) similar poem by another poet who, like Clare, was beset with mental distress throughout much of his life.

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait, with inpatient readiness, to seize my
                                   Soul in a moment.

Damn'd below Judas: more abhorr'd than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,
                                   Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
                                   Bolted against me.

Hard lot!  encompass'd with a thousand dangers;
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors;
I'm called, if vanquish'd, to receive a sentence
                                   Worse than Abiram's.

Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
                                   Buried above ground.

William Cowper, in H. S. Milford (editor), The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper (1905).  The poem is sometimes printed with the title "Lines Written during a Period of Insanity."  However, the  poem was not published until after Cowper's death, and the title was likely added by an editor.

Tristram Hillier, "Flooded Meadow" (1949)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Three Variations On A Theme, And An Echo

Robert Louis Stevenson suffered from ill-health for much of his short life. Nevertheless, he usually remained in good spirits.  But he knew what he was up against.  Thus, it is not surprising that, on more than one occasion, he composed his own poetic epitaph.  He wrote the following untitled poem in 1879, at the age of 29.

Now when the number of my years
     Is all fulfilled, and I
     From sedentary life
     Shall rouse me up to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

Clear was my soul, my deeds were free,
     Honour was called my name,
     I fell not back from fear
     Nor followed after fame.
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

Bury me low in valleys green
     And where the milder breeze
     Blows fresh along the stream,
     Sings roundly in the trees --
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

George Hellman (editor), Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson Hitherto Unpublished (1916).

Harry van der Weyden, "Cliff End, Studland, Dorset" (1909)

The poem sounds vaguely familiar.  Eventually -- over a period of eight years -- it was transformed into what is perhaps Stevenson's best-known poem.


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
     And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Underwoods (1887).

Another instance of less being more.

John William Inchbold, "Anstey's Cove, Devon" (1854)

"Requiem" took on an interesting afterlife in the hands of A. E. Housman. At first thought, one might not think of Housman and Stevenson as kindred spirits.  But there is a sort of Housman feel to "Requiem," don't you think?  It wouldn't seem out of place in A Shropshire Lad.

Stevenson died in Samoa on December 3, 1894.  On December 22, 1894, the following poem by Housman was published in the weekly issue of the The Academy above an obituary for Stevenson.

                       R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
     Her far-borne canvas furled,
The ship pours shining on the quay
     The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
     Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
     And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
     The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
     The hunter from the hill.

A. E. Housman, The Academy, No. 1181 (December 22, 1894).

Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)

In closing, a modern footnote courtesy of Philip Larkin.  Larkin's most famous (or, perhaps, infamous) poem begins with a line about one's "mum and dad" which, out of delicacy, I will not quote here.  Larkin knew English poetry inside-out, and had a delightful sense of humor.  The title of his poem?  "This Be the Verse."  Yet another reason to love Larkin.

John Everett (1876-1949), "Worbarrow Bay, Dorset"

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Where All The People's Brains Are Turned The Wrong Way"

I don't know exactly what it is, but there is something beguiling and lovely about the following poem.  Some may find it too sentimental.  Others may think that there is not much to it.  But I am very fond of it.  Maybe I am simply a soft touch when it comes to dogs . . .

                    Country Letter

Dear brother Robin this comes from us all
With our kind love and could Gip write and all
Though but a dog he'd have his love to spare
For still he knows and by your corner chair
The moment he comes in he lyes him down
and seems to fancy you are in the town.
This leaves us well in health thank God for that
For old acquaintance Sue has kept your hat
Which mother brushes ere she lays it bye
and every Sunday goes upstairs to cry
Jane still is yours till you come back agen
and neer so much as dances with the men
and Ned the woodman every week comes in
and asks about you kindly as our kin
and he with this and goody Thompson sends
Remembrances with those of all our friends
Father with us sends love untill he hears
and mother she has nothing but her tears
Yet wishes you like us in health the same
and longs to see a letter with your name
So loving brother don't forget to write
Old Gip lies on the hearth stone every night
Mother can't bear to turn him out of doors
and never noises now of dirty floors
Father will laugh but lets her have her way
and Gip for kindness get a double pay
So Robin write and let us quickly see
You don't forget old friends no more than we
Nor let my mother have so much to blame
To go three journeys ere your letter came.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (1920).  The spelling and punctuation are as they appear in Clare's manuscript.

So, where lies the appeal of the poem?  Perhaps this:  there is truth and beauty in the commonplace.  And when the commonplace is put into heroic couplets, even more so.

Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

Here is part of a letter that Clare wrote to his wife on July 19, 1848, while he was in the Northampton Asylum:

"My Dear Wife,
     I have not written to you a long while, but here I am in the land of Sodom where all the people's brains are turned the wrong way.  I was glad to see John yesterday, and should like to have gone back with him, for I am very weary of being here.  You might come and fetch me away, for I think I have been here long enough.
     I write this in a green meadow by the side of the river agen Stokes Mill, and I see three of their daughters and a son now and then.  The confusion and roar of mill dams and locks is sounding very pleasant while I write it, and it's a very beautiful evening; the meadows are greener than usual after the shower and the rivers are brimful.  I think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this Hell and French Bastille of English liberty.  Keep yourselves happy and comfortable and love one another.  By and bye I shall be with you, perhaps before you expect me."

Ibid, pages 40-41.  The spelling is as it appears in Clare's letter.

Samuel Palmer, "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826)

The "perhaps before you expect me" in Clare's letter brings to mind his escape from an earlier asylum (Fair Mead, in High Beech, Epping Forest, Essex) in July of 1841.  During that escape, he walked back to his home in Northborough, which was 90 or so miles away.  He later wrote an account of his travels, in the form of a daily journal, which he gave to his wife.  At one point, he describes sleeping out in the open at night:  "I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning."  Frederick Martin, The Life of John Clare (1865), page 283.

     Journey Out of Essex
   or, John Clare's Escape
       from the Madhouse

I am lying with my head
Over the edge of the world,
Unpicking my whereabouts
Like the asylum's name
That they stitch on the sheets.

Sick now with bad weather
Or a virus from the fens,
I dissolve in a puddle
My biographies of birds
And the names of flowers.

That they may recuperate
Alongside the stunned mouse,
The hedgehog rolled in leaves,
I am putting to bed
In this rheumatic ditch

The boughs of my harvest-home,
My wives, one on either side,
And keeping my head low as
A lark's nest, my feet toward
Helpston and the pole star.

Michael Longley, No Continuing City (1969).

Samuel Palmer, "Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


What is poetry?  If someone were to ask me that question, I would tell them that I am not qualified to answer.  Instead, I would ask them to read this poem:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).

George Charlton, "The Four Seasons: Spring" (c. 1942)

In terms of sound and sense, words and meaning, form and feeling, I believe that this is as close to perfect as poetry can get.  On a previous occasion, I attempted to discuss a few of the many fine things about this poem, so I will not repeat that discussion here.

Although I cannot define "poetry," I can say that one mark of a good poem is that it follows you over the years:  it haunts you (in a good sense); it returns when you least expect it.  Thus, in recent months I have encountered two poems that brought me back to "A slumber did my spirit seal."  And now, by mere chance, I have three lovely poems circling around one another.

George Charlton, "The Four Seasons: Summer" (c. 1942)

First, I came across this:

Lay a garland on my hearse
     Of the dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches bear,
     Say I died true.

My Love was false, but I was firm
     From my hour of birth.
Upon my buried body lay
     Lightly, gently, earth.

Francis Beaumont/John Fletcher, The Maid's Tragedy (1622), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).  The poem is sometimes titled "Aspatia's Song" because it is spoken by a character of that name in Beaumont and Fletcher's play.

George Charlton, "The Four Seasons: Autumn" (c. 1942)

A month or so later, I discovered this:

The honey-throated nightingale, our Musa the blue-eyed
This narrow tomb claimed suddenly where she doth voiceless bide:
For all her art and all her fame, stone-still she lies to-day:
And over thee, our Musa fair, light lie the dust for aye.

A. H. Bullen, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes (1921).

The poem is a translation by Bullen of an anonymous poem in The Greek Anthology.  Bullen was well-known in his time as the editor of a number of editions of Elizabethan verse and drama, and as the founder of the Shakespeare Head Press, which was located in Stratford-upon-Avon.  He self-published two volumes of poems (of 25 copies and 30 copies), which he gave to friends only.  After his death, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes was issued.  It contains forty poems.

Given Bullen's interests, it is not surprising that his translation of the Greek original has an Elizabethan feel to it.

George Charlton, "The Four Seasons: Winter" (c. 1942)