Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Poetry

The secret ministry of frost

Sunday, 21 October, 2018

The year of the endless summer continues. Autumn was simply steamrollered out of the way by a summer that had hijacked spring and then refused to negotiate with the seasons. Still, change is in the air. The mornings are chillier and the secret ministry of frost is sending out feelers at night. That phrase, “the secret ministry of frost,” was coined by the English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was born on this day in 1772. Coleridge also minted “suspension of disbelief” and lots of other great phrases (“a sadder and a wiser man”, “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”), many of which can be found in his major works, especially The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.

In his poem Frost at Midnight, the narrator is speaking to his infant son, asleep by his side. It begins, “The Frost performs its secret ministry / Unhelped by any wind,” and the last ten lines have been cited as a perfect example of the kind of verse that’s uniquely Coleridge: as natural as prose, but superbly poetic.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Icicles


Grazing at large in meadows submarine

Monday, 15 October, 2018

“It was the kind of Sunday to make one ache for Monday morning,” wrote Joan Didion in South and West: From a Notebook. Monday has a questionable reputation but not everyone complains about the day. On Monday, 26 April 1784, the notable English poet William Cowper dined on a flatfish of the genus Hippoglossus from the family of right-eye flounders and was very pleased with the result.

Language note: “wast” is an archaic spelling of the second-person singular simple past form of be, and the adjective “minikin” means small; insignificant.

To The Immortal Memory Of The Halibut, On Which I Dined This Day, Monday, April 26, 1784

Where hast thou floated, in what seas pursued
Thy pastime? When wast thou an egg new spawned,
Lost in the immensity of ocean’s waste?
Roar as they might, the overbearing winds
That rocked the deep, thy cradle, thou wast safe —
And in thy minikin and embryo state,
Attached to the firm leaf of some salt weed,
Didst outlive tempests, such as wrung and racked
The joints of many a stout and gallant bark,
And whelmed them in the unexplored abyss.
Indebted to no magnet and no chart,
Nor under guidance of the polar fire,
Thou wast a voyager on many coasts,
Grazing at large in meadows submarine,
Where flat Batavia just emerging peeps
Above the brine, — where Caledonia’s rocks
Beat back the surge, — and where Hibernia shoots
Her wondrous causeway far into the main.
— Wherever thou hast fed, thou little thoughtst,
And I not more, that I should feed on thee
Peace, therefore, and good health, and much good fish,
To him who sent thee! — and success, as oft
As it descends into the billowy gulf,
To the same dreg that caught thee! — Fare thee well!
Thy lot thy brethren of the slimy fin
Would envy, could they know that thou wast doomed
To feed a bard, and to be praised in verse.

William Cowper (1731 – 1800)

Halibut


Believe in miracles

Thursday, 11 October, 2018

Healing wells were traditional shrines dedicated to the miraculous powers of water, which is the fons et origo of life itself. They were incorporated by Christianity and country people still make pilgrimages to the holy wells to seek relief for a variety of ills from rheumatism to cancer. A great many wells are supposed to cure eye problems and it’s customary for the petitioner to leave a token piece of clothing, usually hung on a bush or a tree, so that the healing power of the water can act through it.

Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

At the holy well


Reader! make time, while you be

Wednesday, 3 October, 2018

Sir Fukle Greville’s death in 1628 followed an attack by a servant, Ralph Hayward, on 1 September that year. Hayward appears to have been unhappy with the terms of his master’s will and stabbed Greville in the stomach while he was assisting him to fasten his breeches. Fukle Greville died of gangrene on 30 September, after physicians had replaced the damaged natural fatty membrane around his intestines with animal fat.

Apart from his closest friend, the gifted Sir Philip Sidney, Fukle Greville was the main courtly writer of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. His works include the poetic dramas Alaham and Mustapha, the sonnet sequence Caelica and five verse treatises: An Inquisition upon Fame and Honour, A Treatise of Humane Learning, A Treatise of Wars, A Treatise of Monarchy and A Treatise of Religion. Throughout his writings, Greville’s main concern is with the dangers of power and intrigue in an absolute monarchy, and in his sombre opinion, the individual is powerless in the face of political corruption. The careerist and artist Greville survived dangerous times and ended up convinced of the degeneracy of human nature. This view is encapsulated in a remark of his in a letter to Sir John Coke dated 1 February 1613: “I know the world and believe in God.”

You that seek what life is in death

You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.

Fulke Greville (3 October 1554 — 30 September 1628)

Fukle Greville


A Monster at Our Table

Sunday, 2 September, 2018

Derived from the Latin monstrum, the English word monster suggests something awful, evil, because a monster is generally physically or psychologically hideous and morally objectionable. Monsters are often hybrids of humans and animals, but the word can also be used figuratively to describe someone with similar characteristics, such as a person who does cruel or horrific things.

A Monster at Our Table

A monster sat down at our table
And ate up all of our bread
We watched his jaws crush the crusts
Immobilized by revulsion and dread

He talked about the weather and sport
But the topics withered under his breath
We nodded at convenient intervals
And silently prayed for his death

The monster got up from our table
And waddled away towards his lair
We sprinkled Holy Water behind him
To protect what we loved about there.

Eamonn Fizgerald

A Monster at our tabl


Four Things Make Us Happy Here

Friday, 24 August, 2018

The English poet and cleric Robert Herrick was baptised on 24 August 1591. He is best known for Hesperides, a book of poems, which includes the carpe diem verse “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, with the first line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

Four Things Make Us Happy Here

Health is the first good lent to men;
A gentle disposition then:
Next, to be rich by no by-ways;
Lastly, with friends to enjoy our days.

Robert Herrick (baptised 24 August 1591 — buried 15 October 1674)


Bos Taurus bossing

Monday, 13 August, 2018

The genus of wild and domestic cattle is called Bos, from the Latin bōs: cow, ox, bull. Arguably, the best known Bos Taurus breed is the black Angus from Scotland.

Bos Taurus

The Black Angus Bull

Out there in the paddock I hear the black bull
He never stops bellowing when the moon is full
I wonder does the moon affect him in some strange way
For I’ve never heard him bellow in the light of the day
The full moon does affect people ’tis said
It has an unsettling effect in the head
And if a mental weakness in humans the full moon can find
Why not it too affect the animal kind
He has his herd of cows with him yet I do wonder why
He bellows all night when the moon’s in the sky
During the hours of day he is always so quiet
And I’ve never heard him bellow on a dark night
But he never stops bellowing when the moon is full
Out there in the paddock the black Angus bull.

Francis Duggan


Sweeney by Matthew Sweeney

Thursday, 9 August, 2018

On Sunday morning, in Cork, the poet Matthew Sweeney succumbed to a cruel ailment that causes its sufferers so much agony as it wastes away the human body irreversibly: Motor Neuron Disease. Matthew Sweeney was 66 when he died and his poem Sweeney hints at the heart-breaking destruction he experienced in his final year.

Sweeney

Even when I said my head was shrinking
he didn’t believe me. Change doctors, I thought,
but why bother? We’re all hypochondriacs,
and those feathers pushing through my pores
were psychosomatic. My wife was the same
till I pecked her, trying to kiss her, one morning,
scratching her feet with my claws, cawing
good morning till she left the bed with a scream.

I moved out then, onto a branch of the oak
behind the house. That way I could see her
as she opened the car, on her way to work.
Being a crow didn’t stop me fancying her,
Especially when she wore that short black number
I’d bought her in Berlin. I don’t know if she
noticed me. I never saw her look up.
I did see boxes of my books going out.

The nest was a problem. My wife had cursed me
for being useless at DIY, and it was no better now.
I wasn’t a natural flier, either, so I sat
in that tree, soaking, shivering, all day.
Everytime I saw someone carrying a bottle of wine
I cawed. A takeaway curry was worse.
And the day I saw my wife come home
with a man, I flew finally into our wall.

Matthew Sweeney (1952 – 2018)

Matthew Sweeney


Reading the mnemogenic Larkin on reading

Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

A Study of Reading Habits

When getting my nose into a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thin specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seems far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin (1922 — 1985)

The wonderful thing about Philip Larkin was his honesty. He was able to see through the many boring, cynical rituals that make up much of modern life and compress his visions into verse that remains shocking and hilarious.

Language Note: Martin Amis, in his Poems by Philip Larkin, honours the poet for his “frictionless memorability”, and, he adds, “To use one of Nabokov’s prettiest coinages, he is mnemogenic.” The word was coined by Nabokov in Bend Sinister, where a character named Professor Adam Krug describes a dream of his schooldays, and mentions gaps left by “those of his schoolmates who proved less mnemogenic than others”. From the Latin: mamma + –genesis, the noun “mammogenesis” refers to the growth and development of the mammary gland.


Nor all, that glisters, gold

Monday, 30 July, 2018

On this day in 1771, Thomas Gray, poet, classical scholar and Cambridge professor died. Although he published only 13 poems in his lifetime, his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard has ensured perpetual fame. Gray was a poetic genius and even his light-hearted verse is filled with sparkling wit and brilliant observations on the human condition. Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes contains this ageless wisdom: “Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes / And heedless hearts is lawful prize.” And this: “A Fav’rite has no friend!”

Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dy’d
The azure flow’rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin’d,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr’d applause.

Still had she gaz’d; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Thro’ richest purple to the view
Betray’d a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch’d in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil’d)
The slipp’ry verge her feet beguil’d,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew’d to ev’ry wat’ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr’d;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav’rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771)


Connie Bensley at 89

Sunday, 22 July, 2018

The English poet Connie Bensley was born in 1929, in south-west London, where she still lives. She worked first as a secretary and later as a medical copywriter and filled her rare spare moments between office and home with verse that evokes the fastidiousness of a career where words counted. In her descriptions, there are flashes of Betjeman’s wit and notes of Larkin’s sharpness when observing what Jean Hartley called “ordinary people doing ordinary things”.

Apologia

My life is too dull and too careful–
even I can see that:
the orderly bedside table,
the spoilt cat.

Surely I should have been bolder.
What could biographers say?
She got up, ate toast and went shopping
day after day?

Whisky and gin are alarming,
Ecstasy makes you drop dead.
Toy boys make inroads on cash
and your half of the bed.

Emily Dickinson, help me.
Stevie, look up from your Aunt.
Some people can stand excitement,
some people can’t.

Connie Bensley