Tag: poem

Tearing secrets from yielding flesh

Saturday, 2 June, 2018

It was the Megan and Harry wedding of its day when the poet Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the family home at Knole in Kent in 1913. The society columnists enthused over the 21-year-old bride’s beauty and her magnificent gown. The outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary, and the wedding expenses were fabulous. Nicolson inspected “over 100 emerald and diamond rings” before he settled on “a lovely one” for £185, and on 14 October Vita Sackville-West settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, “nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas”.

Along with their landscaping work at Knole, Nicolson and Sackville-West created one of England’s most famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, but in between the horticulture both indulged in many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which ended with Sackville-West’s death on this day in 1962. Her most famous intrigue was with Virginia Woolf, who celebrated their relationship in the 1928 novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West responded with this verse to her mistress:

Lost poem

When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress

Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)

R&R


Harry and Meghan and the Whit Wedding

Monday, 21 May, 2018

Once upon a time, Whit Saturday was a popular day for weddings in the UK. This historical fact, however, was unnoticed by the Reverend Michael Curry in his sermon during the Royal Wedding as Whit Saturday was turned into Windsor Saturday. The British poet Philip Larkin would have been bemused.

The Whitsun Weddings is one of Larkin’s best-known poems and it was published in 1964, the year The Rolling Stones released their debut album. Larkin, who was more of a Beatles man, describes a train journey on a hot Whit Saturday. The windows are open and he becomes aware that the passengers boarding the train at its several stops are members of Whit wedding parties. He observes the people and imagines the venues where the wedding receptions have been held. As the train approaches London, his thoughts turn to the meaning of what the newly-weds have done.

The Whitsun Weddings

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
— An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl — and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Today, Whit Monday, was declared a bank holiday in the UK in 1871 but it lost this status in 1972 when the Spring Bank Holiday was created in its place.


Done is a battell on the dragon blak

Wednesday, 28 March, 2018 0 Comments

Easter approacheth. Time for a preparatory poem and our choice is a masterpiece of Scottish medieval verse, Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro (Christ is risen from the grave), by William Dunbar (1460 – 1520). This is one of the greatest of early Easter poems in English and it has one of the greatest of all opening lines: “Done is a battell on the dragon blak” (The battle against the black dragon is done). The theme is the Resurrection and Christ is cast in the role of a noble knight.

Some of the language is easily decrypted but the gulf between our 21st global century and Dunbar’s early 16th-century Scotland is apparent. Here’s how he depicts evil:

The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang

In modern English, this can be rendered as, “The old sharp tiger with his teeth ajar / Which has lain in wait for us so long / Hoping to grip us in his strong claws.” Those “clowis” give bite to Dunbar’s language, which is a miscellany of elemental sounds and delightful alliteration: “Whilk in a wait” is wonderful. By the way, here’s a modern translation of the poem. And now, a snippet of the original:

Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campion Chyrst confoundit has his force;
The yettis of hell are broken with a crak,
The signe triumphall raisit is of the cross,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Chyrst with his bloud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang;
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;
The merciful Lord wald nocht that it were so,
He made him for to failye of that fang.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The Dragon Blak


Where Drunken Thady met the Bishop’s Lady

Thursday, 22 February, 2018 0 Comments

Michael Hogan was born in Thomondgate in Limerick in 1832 and following the publication of his epic poem “Drunken Thady and the Bishop’s Lady,” he was crowned “The Bard of Thomond”. The work tells the tale of the vengeful wife of the Bishop of Limerick and her life of unspeakable vice. One night, while roaming the city streets, she met a Thomondgate drunk known as Thady and tossed him over Thomond Bridge into the Shannon. Drowning, he found religion, and asked God for forgiveness. Having repented his sins, his life was spared, and he was the Drunken Thady no more. The Bishop’s Lady was not for turning, however.

Each night, she roamed, with airy feet,
From Thomond Bridge to Castle-street;
And those that stayed out past eleven,
Would want a special guard from Heaven,
To shield them, with a holy wand,
From the mad terrors of her hand!
She knocked two drunken soldiers dead,
Two more with battered foreheads fled,
She broke the sentry-box in staves,
And dashed the fragments in the waves!
She slashed the gunners, left and right,
And put the garrison to flight!

Thomondgate


The Magi for the Epiphany

Saturday, 6 January, 2018 1 Comment

Something unexpected took place in Bethlehem and the otherworldly magi, who “appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky”, are doing their best to comprehend the incomprehensible. It’s a long way from Bethlehem to Bloomsbury, but that was where William Butler Yeats was living in 1914 when he wrote The Magi. In a mere eight lines, he follows the journey of the three wise men with “ancient faces” that resemble “rain-beaten stones”, who are forever watching and waiting, “all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more” the thing that will satisfy their search for meaning.

Is Yeats saying that the world has yet to discover the meaning of Christ’s brief time on earth? Is it so that we cannot be fulfilled until “the uncontrollable mystery” is decrypted? Today, the quest for the secret of “the uncontrollable mystery” is increasingly fervent. Anthony Levandowski, for example, is the “Dean” of a brand new Silicon Valley religion called Way of the Future that worships artificial intelligence.

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

William Butler Yeats

Yeats uses a series of “s”-sounding words — stones, stiff, still, silver, side by side, unsatisfied — to paint a picture of the mysterious Magi, who wear “stiff, painted clothes” and “helms of silver”. His use of alliteration and repetition underpins the characteristics of the “unsatisfied ones”. On this Feast of the Epiphany, let us hope that they, and all of us, find some satisfaction this year.

The Sacred Heart Lamp


Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017 0 Comments

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


Poem in October for Sarah

Sunday, 29 October, 2017 0 Comments

Poem in October by Dylan Thomas is dedicated to Sarah Fitzgerald, who has not yet reached her thirtieth year to heaven. “And I rose / In rainy autumn / And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.” Happy birthday, Sarah.

Poem in October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water–
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953)


Korea: Stony seaboard, far and foreign

Friday, 11 August, 2017 0 Comments

In his poem Ireland With Emily, John Betjeman wrote of:

Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

The same poem contains the couplet “Stony seaboard, far and foreign / Stony hills poured over space,” and those lines could be applied to Korea, North and South. One of the highlights of our trip to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait, which connects the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, was the time spent in the Stone Park and its museum devoted to “the history of stone culture.”

Jeju Stone Park

Jeju Stone Park


Late June poem

Wednesday, 28 June, 2017 0 Comments

On 24 June 1914, a steam train carrying an unknown English poet made an unscheduled stop at a village station called Adlestrop in Gloucestershire. The obscure poet was Edward Thomas and he immortalized his glimpse that day of “willows, willow-herb, and grass / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry” in Adlestrop. The train moved on and a year later Edward Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles regiment. He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.

Adlestrop

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917)


Put the kettle on!

Sunday, 11 June, 2017 0 Comments

Drinking coffee and tea might offer us a vital life-saving benefit: protection from liver disease. A new study out of the Netherlands shows frequent coffee and even a small amount of tea can protect against liver fibrosis, part of the process of liver disease. The study’s lead author was Louise J. M. Alferink of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the results were published in the Journal of Hepatology. The Dutch studied some 2,500 people, tracking their coffee and tea consumption as well as liver stiffness, which measures liver fibrosis. Lots of coffee and just a cuppa “were significantly associated with lower liver stiffness values.”

John Agard was born in June 1949 in British Guiana and now lives in Britain. In 2012, he was selected for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. The Kettle is quintessentially British and it contains a great deal of Agardian wisdom that Theresa May might benefit from now, in her hour of need. “It’s not whether you lose / It not whether you win / It’s whether or not you’ve plugged the kettle in.”

The Kettle

Put the kettle on.
Put the kettle on.
It is the British answer
to Armageddon.
Never mind the taxes rise,
never mind trains are late.
There’s one thing you can be sure of
and that’s the kettle mate!
It’s not whether you lose,
It not whether you win,
It’s whether or not you’ve
plugged the kettle in.
May the kettle ever hiss,
may the kettle ever steam,
it is the engine that drives our nations dream.
Long live the kettle
that rules over us.
May it be lime scale free
and may it never rust.
Sing it on the beaches,
sing it from the house tops;
the sun may set on empire
but the kettle never stops.

John Agard


The Homeric Argus of Alexander Pope

Sunday, 21 May, 2017 0 Comments

In Homer’s Odyssey, Argus is Odysseus’ dog. After ten years fighting in Troy, followed by ten more years struggling to get back to Ithaca, Odysseus finally arrives home only to hear that rivals have taken over his residence in hopes of marrying his wife Penelope. To secretly re-enter the house and spring a surprise attack on them, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar. As he approaches the entrance, he finds the once-majestic Argus lying neglected and infested with lice. Unlike everyone else, Argus recognizes Odysseus at once and he has just enough strength to wag his tail. Unable to greet his beloved dog, as this would betray who he really is, Odysseus passes by (but not without shedding a tear) and enters the building. Thereupon, Argus dies.

Alexander Pope, who was born in London on this day in 1688, is the second-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare: “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing.” His tribute to Argus is a classic, in the Homeric sense. The image is of Prince, our very own, always-majestic, Argus.

Argus

When wise Ulysses, from his native coast
Long kept by wars, and long by tempests toss’d,
Arrived at last, poor, old, disguised, alone,
To all his friends, and ev’n his Queen unknown,
Changed as he was, with age, and toils, and cares,
Furrow’d his rev’rend face, and white his hairs,
In his own palace forc’d to ask his bread,
Scorn’d by those slaves his former bounty fed,
Forgot of all his own domestic crew,
The faithful Dog alone his rightful master knew!

Unfed, unhous’d, neglected, on the clay
Like an old servant now cashier’d, he lay;
Touch’d with resentment of ungrateful man,
And longing to behold his ancient lord again.
Him when he saw he rose, and crawl’d to meet,
(‘Twas all he could) and fawn’d and kiss’d his feet,
Seiz’d with dumb joy; then falling by his side,
Own’d his returning lord, look’d up, and died!

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)

Prince as Argus