The group liked Gwalia Deserta VII, from the
the Welsh poet, Idris Davies. He describes the squalor and the poverty of a Welsh miner in the 1920’s living on the breadline; the poem opens with a deadly warning. The narrator highlights the dangerous nature of the work – the filthy working conditions. He portrays a miner called Dai, who ‘suddenly wonders’ whether his baby ‘shall grow up to crawl in the local Hell.’ It’s all clever stuff – social commentary, mixed in with objective observation and reportage.
I got a copy of the text from a very interesting blog about Davies, which gives general information about the man and the General Strike of 1926:
There are countless tons of rock above his head,
And gases wait in secret corners for a spark;
And his lamp shows dimly in the dust.
His leather belt is warm and moist with sweat,
And he crouches against the hanging coal,
And the pick swings to and fro,
And many beads of salty sweat play about his lips
And trickle down the blackened skin
To the hairy tangle on the chest.
The rats squeak and scamper among the unused props,
And the fungus waxes strong.
And suddenly wonders if his baby
Shall grow up to crawl in the local Hell,
And if tomorrow's ticket will buy enough food for six days,
And for the Sabbath created for pulpits and bowler hats,
When the under-manager cleans a dirty tongue
And walks with the curate's maiden aunt to church...
Again the pick resumes the swing of toil,
And Dai forgets the world where merchants walk in morning streets
And where the great sun smiles on pithead and pub and church-steeple.
is not one word out of place, nor a phrase you could edit
without reducing its marvelous affect.
Mahon provides a contrast between his dying narrator and the simple observations, which this man makes about the splendor of life: ‘the clouds clearing’ and the ‘high tide reflected on the ceiling.’
The last line: Everything is going to be all right’ is a statement of pure honesty from the narrator - a paradoxical fact. Other critics have said that Mahon is being ironic – I feel they are a little off-mark, they are misreading the intent of the author (though in truth all readings are valid). It is so well crafted this poem. The dying narrator says:
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying
The key point is that this transition between life and death is an imaginary one for both the interlocutor and the reader. In truth, life cannot know death, this is why he says: ‘there will be dying,’ (and it is even emphasized ‘this’ dying) for in the immediacy of the moment – ‘death’ can only exist in an imaginary future, it therefore does not exist. In the erasing of the narrator’s past – an appreciation of the sublime nature of the present moment is birthed at the exact time of the narrator’s death – this is symbolized by the sunrise. It is at this transition point between day and night that the whole of life is apperceived or understood as a single movement. This realization sinks in at the termination of the text. In the absence of the narrator as a separate individual there is just the singularity of life – Oneness through the appearance of diversity.
The last line of the poem is sad because it’s so poignantly true – the death we fear all our lives never comes to claim us - because it only exists in our imaginations. This is why the narrator can say, ‘everything is going to be alright,’ because he sees for himself the truth of that statement. He no longer opposes death for life and death are no longer separated into different mental categories, thus: ‘the sun rises in spite of everything.’ The ‘source’ of life cannot die for it rises everyday in the morning sky. Everything changes in a ‘riot of light’ or a dance of Being, but nothing dies, it just changes shape like the transitory clouds in the sky.
The narrator experiences the distillation of perception and the clarity of conception, when he focuses upon the Loving Intelligence of the whole universe, in this, he realizes he is not separate from it; indeed, he is at one with it. He is not battling with his thoughts, for he has come to see that life and death are not separate entities but one illuminated continuum –thus he is left in a state of joyful acceptance. Both nature and civilization are encompassed within this Sacred Unity – they are One. Present moment awareness gently embraces all that there is – it is not so much as ‘his’ awareness but the universe looking through him. In this eternal, timeless, deathless moment there is the simple ecstasy of seeing things as they are:
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Shawna Lemay says that Derick Mahon has written a ‘seemingly simple, but gorgeously complicated poem.’ I think in many ways, she captures it’s essence with this neat summary:
Thank you murderous officials
who threw a shameless net of echoes
of sounds of war over our quiet region.
The narrator goes on to complain about being plucked from his ‘peaceable tenancy of earth,’. The plane disturbs his ‘selfish happiness’ making him think about:
Those many-cloured millions lie
in the darkening continents of frightened man.
In short, it is a well-intentioned poem, contrasting the idyllic life we enjoy in the West with the terror caused by these machines in countries torn apart by modern warfare.
Hilaire brought in a charming poem by Margaret Lloyd about motherhood and memory – the slow passage of time that leads one into the blind ‘snow’ of old age. The poem starts on an optimistic note, gradually growing colder and darker. I liked it very much, the writing was taught, the lines sparse and economical. The poem begins:
I wore white. Their winter boots were muddy
but I took the children in my arms to climb
the hill home because they were tired. Three
bodies moving together like one hymn
sung slowly by a small congregation.
That was years ago in late spring.
She then makes the comparison that:
a snow that later fell out of the sky.
This shift in tone ends one stanza and begins a transition in mood and feeling – setting up a new and darker atmosphere of regret. The narrator frets to herself that she must depart and leave her happy ‘first world behind’ as she faces old age by herself. In a sad twist, she muses on her joyful memories while being confronted with the stark winter of her old age.
We debated about Nia Davies poem Blue Line. We felt the social alienation of the narrator – the fear creeping through the lines. Also we liked the way the stanzas were broken up into unrhyming couplets and carefully arranged tricets – the whole layout added a sense of mystery to the text. After careful deliberation, we felt that maybe the poem was set in the West Bank. Later I researched it and found out that the 'blue line' is a boarder that separates Lebanon from Israel. It’s certainly an intriguing work that makes the reader want to know more about the puzzling narrator – her journey through the bewildering cityscape of her own heart.
I carry my bag across the city.
But I am not coming home to you.
At an intersection:
the faces of these other humans.
They produce signals.
We are part-suspended swan.
That is all.
I think how the body takes.
I am wearing normal clothing.
I am part-scared.
Talk to me of oranges. Valley light.
I am carrying my bag across your old city.
Judging the orange-skin ankles
sat opposite. All across noon,
I am carrying my body,
is crossed by this cast, I have
oranges in my bag. They are
not the same as yours.
I cannot eat them in public.
We cannot just move like this
and like this.
For more information about this young and pioneering poet check out the link above.
The group read out and discussed John Betjeman’s cheeky poem Senex – a satirical piece about an old man trying to contain his lust. The copy I’ve provided comes from the Best Poems Encyclopaedia.
Betjeman constructs formal cinquains, which use a non-symmetrical pattern of refraining words, structured according to the simple ABAAB rhyme scheme. The affect is musical on the ear and conjures up a sense of pathos, shot through with dark humor. The text has a lovely scansion and moves along with the ease of a ballad.
Oh would I could subdue the flesh
Which sadly troubles me!
And then perhaps could view the flesh
As though I never knew the flesh
And merry misery.
To see the golden hiking girl
With wind about her hair,
The tennis-playing, biking girl,
The wholly-to-my-liking girl,
To see and not to care.
At sundown on my tricycle
I tour the Borough’s edge,
And icy as an icicle
See bicycle by bicycle
Stacked waiting in the hedge.
Get down from me! I thunder there,
You spaniels! Shut your jaws!
Your teeth are stuffed with underwear,
Suspenders torn asunder there
And buttocks in your paws!
Oh whip the dogs away my Lord,
They make me ill with lust.
Bend bare knees down to pray, my Lord,
Teach sulky lips to say, my Lord,
That flaxen hair is dust.
The group talked about A. E. Houseman’s poem, The Olive. When I first read it, I wondered if it was a reference to the Great War. However, I believe the poem was written about1902, which might make it a poetical critique on the Boer War 1899 –1902.
I think that Houseman was suggesting that peace as signified by the olive is built upon the foundations of warfare. Death and suffering remain dormant during periods of peace and contain the latent seeds of sporadic fighting. The final couplet is a tour de force and makes the point very well. The narrator says, ‘how deep the root is planted’ and by this allusion, he seems to be saying that peace is corrupted by the violence of history and ultimately belongs in the ‘grave.’ His point is subtle though I think well made – it certainly has contemporary merit – especially with the current events unfolding in Gaza and Iraq.
The quatrains race along with the power of a ballad averaging about seven syllables per line. The poem possesses a lovely, gentle scansion. The original text is now in the public domain:
The olive in it’s orchard
Should now be rooted sure
The cast abroad its branches
And flourish and endure.
Aloft amid the trenches
Its dressers dud and died
The olive in its orchard
Should prosper and abide.
Close should the fruit be clustered
And light the leaf should wave,
So deep the root is planted
In the corrupting grave.
The text though a touch self-absorbed, certainly has an unsettling affect on the reader. When scanning the lines, the reader is placed into the viewpoint of first person singular – thus throwing him into the turbulent emotions of its narrator. The speaker addresses a future generation. We may deduce the audience is either unborn or else the narrator is dead – the simple structure of the octave is used to good effect. Poe plays with contradiction, utilizing a strange paradoxical metaphysics that merges the speaker into the reader, the unborn into the living and resolves that voice into the first person voice of its dead narrator.
It may well be maudlin, but I love the playful switching of viewpoints and the wild distortion of perception that this entails. The author of this epitaph manages to warp both time and space, flipping between a ghostly narrator and its unborn reader. Both writer and reader merge into a single mystical perspective.
We may imagine that the interlocutor has no idea who he is addressing as he is already dead, thus the poem is entitled To-- the idea being that you are supposed to substitute the dash for your own name.
Again the poem has been in print for well over a hundred years and is in the public domain:
I heed not that my earthly lot
Hath little of Earth in it,
That years of love have been forgot
I the hatred of a minute:
I mourn not that the desolate
Are happier, sweet, than I,
But that you sorrow for my fate
Who am a passer-by.
The poem concerns itself with and worries itself about the transient nature of all that is beautiful. The first part, 'The Leaden Echo,' frets about the loss of this beauty:
How to keep.../ Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty,...from vanishing away.
The narrator considers eight ways to 'keep' beauty from ‘vanishing away:’
a 'bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key'.
All these methods of artificially enhancing sex appeal are useless. Eternal beauty resides ultimately with God, rather than in His earthly creations, which reflect a passing imitation of that beauty. Trying to enhance beauty through feminine ornaments comes to a waste of time, and beauty becomes 'frowning,' 'wrinkles,' 'grey,' 'drooping,' 'dying,' 'tombs and worms.' In short:
'Nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age's evils hoar hair,
'The Leaden Echo' ends with disappointment:
Be beginning to despair, to despair.
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
Earthly loss is but fleeting beauty; whereas, God’s beauty being removed from aesthetic characteristics has another aspect to it: that of the eternal - it therefore is beyond the ‘tombs and worms’ of time. The ‘tumbling… decay,’ - the chaos of the perceptual order is but a mirror reflecting the unchanging image of God. In this new vision, there 'is an everlastingness...,’ an incorruptibility - a loveliness which transcends even the erotic. As Hopkins says:
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maidengear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girl grace--
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them."
The poem contains the answer to the riddle of beauty and also to one’s existence. The reply echoes in the soul and a new attitude of gratitude forms in the heart of the priestly poet, he is now able to:
'Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God beauty's self and beauty's giver.'
First, in life, we dedicate our earthly beauty to God, then, at death, we realize our spiritual beauty and the reciprocal circle closes. This knowledge helps the narrator to transcend time and to enter the sublime. For Hopkins therefore, the sublime is a portal into 'Yonder.' All in all, 'not a hair...is lost,' for God keeps beauty in the ‘ever-lastingness’ of this present moment, which is the spiritual realization of His Omnipresence. The deity can also be expressed in Her feminine divinity - presumably, in the guise of the Holy Spirit, which resides in the eternal, undying, resurrected Temple of Man, thus man turns to look at himself when he follows the 'beauty' in his own soul. This journey takes us beyond the mortal frame into the all-embracing love of God - in this embrace, man sees the feminine reflection of his own soul. Hopkins finds it difficult to find adequate words to describe this never-aging place inside his heart - being spiritual, it has no physical or spatial location or dimension, it is not formal; rather it has a femanine and intuitional delicacy to it - thus the poet says :
'with fonder a care...
Yonder.... We follow, now we follow.--
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, yonder.'
Earthly beauty is understood to be an aspect of eternal beauty – heaven and earth merge and the Kingdom of Heaven is thus realized as a facet of the beauty which is in ourselves: the 'ever-lastingness.'
Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 -- June 8, 1889) was a Jesuit priest and one of the finest Victorian poets. His experimental explorations in metrics and sprung rhythm – combined with his vibrant use of imagery established him as both an original and daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse.
How to keep--is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?
O is there no frowning of these wrinkles, ranked wrinkles deep,
Down? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there's none, there's none, O no there's none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death's worst, winding s and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there's none; no no no there's none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
THE GOLDEN ECHO
There is one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun's tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth's air.
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
One. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever's prized and passes of us, everything that's fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matched face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets more, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an ever-lastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace--
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why should we tread? O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where --
Yonder.--What high as that! We follow, now we follow.--
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,