A Gift for New Years Day: a little gothic romance ….

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I’VE crossed the fields from Lattenden
And haunted Honey Mill,
My feet and all my clothes are torn.
Yet on I stumble still
I must not stay to speak to you
Or falter with my pain,
But hasten on to Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

Folk call me mad perhaps ‘tis true
My life is full of fears,
At whiles I bite my arms, and then
I wash the blood with tears.
I scream, I talk to owls and crows,
Hear voices from the sky,
I see the spooks that ride o’ nights
Men shudder when I’m nigh.

My love was hanged for stealing sheep,
‘Twas that which sent me mad
He was a liar and a thief,
But O I loved my lad !
I’ve wandered wildly ever since,
And last night, ‘neath the Wain,
I saw my love at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

His face was wan, his burning eye
Was like a coal from hell
(He’s with the damned souls, all folk say,
But O I love him well !)
His hands were misty as the moon
That bathed his awful brow,
His lips and breast were smeared with blood,
His cheeks were white as snow.

O tell me, love, where have you been
This weary sleepless while ?
I’ve screamed and wept to kiss your lips,
I’ve hungered for your smile.
Have you been down among the damned,
Where, like the sheep in fold,
The dead men lie, and bleat and cry
And shiver in the cold ?

Have you been up to where the clouds
Are sailing in the blue,
And have they thrown you down, and said
‘Twas no fit place for you ?
Or have you roamed all Sussex through
In weariness and pain,
To meet me here at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane ? ’

He nothing said at all, but stared
With glazed and dreadful eye,
His red lips shook, as if he strove
To part them with a cry.
He could not speak, and O I thought
He’d shiver from my sight,
And leave me lone at Willow’s Forge,
In the terror of the night.

‘ O kiss me lad, before you go ! ‘
I cried, and raised my head.
He stooped his scarlet lips to me,
The living kissed the dead.
But O his mouth was all on fire,
And burned my cheek and hair,
I screamed aloud, and he had gone,
And left me waiting there.

I told my mother what had passed,
She shuddered at my tale
‘You’ve seen the moonlight through the trees
That shiver in the gale ;
And as for your burnt cheek, my girl,
Which makes you sob with pain,
You’ve kissed the fire at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.’

But though she speak, and though I hear,
I will not aught believe
But that at last I’ve met and kissed
The lad for whom I grieve.
And if I haunt the meeting spot,
I’ll see him there again
That’s why I haste to Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

Willow’s Forge by Sheila Kaye-Smith

A Gift for New Years Day: simply because I think that it is lovely ….

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Arthur is gone … Tristram in Careol
Sleeps, with a broken sword – and Yseult sleeps
Beside him, where the Westering waters roll
Over drowned Lyonesse to the outer deeps.

Lancelot is fallen … The ardent helms that shone
So knightly and the splintered lances rust
In the anonymous mould of Avalon:
Gawain and Gareth and Galahad – all are dust.

Where do the vanes and towers of Camelot
And tall Tintagel crumble? Where do those tragic
Lovers and their bright eyed ladies rot?
We cannot tell, for lost is Merlin’s magic.

And Guinevere – Call her not back again
Lest she betray the loveliness time lent
A name that blends the rapture and the pain
Linked in the lonely nightingale’s lament.

Nor pry too deeply, lest you should discover
The bower of Astolat a smokey hut
Of mud and wattle – find the knightliest lover
A braggart, and his lilymaid a slut.

And all that coloured tale a tapestry
Woven by poets. As the spider’s skeins
Are spun of its own substance, so have they
Embroidered empty legend – What remains?

This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot.

Which was the spirit of Britain – that certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood

And charged into the storm’s black heart, with sword
Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
Remembered when all were overwhelmed;

And made of them a legend, to their chief,
Arthur, Ambrosius – no man knows his name –
Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
And to his knights imperishable fame.

They were so few … We know not in what manner
Or where they fell – whether they went
Riding into the dark under Christ’s banner
Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.

But this we know; that when the Saxon rout
Swept over them, the sun no longer shone
On Britain, and the last lights flickered out;
And men in darkness muttered: Arthur is gone …

A Poem for Overground

One day, when ‘Poems From The Underground  caught my eye, a question came into my head.
Poems Underground
Surely it wasn’t just the underground. There must have been other, lest famous, instances of poems in the wild. Have you, ever seen anything, I wonder?

And today I found a poem that made me ask another question. What about buses? I rarely used buses in central London, but I did around and about Harrow, where I lived for quite a few years. I don’t remember seeing anything so interesting on a bus, but maybe that was me not paying attention, or too busy reading.

That poem was  by Sheila Kaye-Smith. I knew she wrote novels set in the Suffolk countryside she loved, I knew she wrote about Jane Austen, I knew she wrote about books, but I hadn’t noticed she has published poetry and I didn’t know she’d spent much time in London.

This poem dates from the days when buses looked like this.

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It’s a little bit dated, and I don’t think her verse is of the same quality as her prose, but it took me back to London and I do rather like it. See what you think.

The Ballad of a Motor ‘Bus by Sheila Kaye-Smith

You get in at Ludgate Circus,
Where in regiments they stand,
All throbbing underneath the bridge,
And pointing to the Strand
All pageantry with colours,
All poetry with words,
Wait those blazoned motor-‘buses
In their fiercely panting herds.

There are ‘buses for the East,
There are ‘buses for the West,
For North and South and Central
And where heaven pleases best
For the Elephant and Castle,
Gospel Oak and Parson’s Green,
Some for Chelsea, some for Putney,

Some for Barnes, and some for Sheen,
There are some that cross the river,
And they see the steamers crawl
With dirty belching smoke-stacks
To the Pool or London Wall
They rumble down the dingy streets
Where dingy houses grow
Like quickly sprouting toadstools
In an evil yellow row.

And some go plunging northward
Up the hills to Kensal Rise,
And some are bound for Hampstead
And the smokeless windy skies,
And some go east to Hackney,
And the long Commercial Road,
Past the buying and the selling,
To poverty’s abode.

But the ‘bus I take goes westward
It leaves Charing Cross behind,
Then it bounds up Piccadilly,
Through the smokey dusty wind
The first lamps have been lighted,
And across St James’s Park
The early lights of Westminster
Are splashing on the dark.

The dusk is falling gently,
And from the streets below
The London glare climbs upward
To make the sad skies glow
Through the mingled dusk and dazzle
We hum swiftly on our way,
While the wind brings to our faces
The first damps of the day.

It is Summer, it is evening,
Early stars are in the sky,
Shining dim above the smoke-wreaths,
While the western bonfires die

And the wind sings of the river
That beyond the city flows,
Of the pleasant westward reaches
That no cargo-tramper knows.

So we spin through holy Brompton,
We leave Kensington behind,
We thunder down to Fulham,
Past churches tall and blind
Till we come at last to Putney,
And the starlit river gleams
Through darkness up to Richmond,
A thoroughfare of dreams.

And it’s there that you are waiting,
O my faithful love, for me !
Through the dark your eyes are straining
My chariot to see
For the working-day is over,
All its dust and hurry past,
And we go to the river,
With my hand in yours at last.

While the motor-‘bus rolls onward
And we stop to watch it tear
All burning through the twilight,
Mysterious and fair.
It was our love’s bright chariot,
The torch of our desires,
Kindling the London darkness
With youth’s eternal fires.

O youth ! O youth in London !
Shall they ever be forgot.
Those young and eager footsteps
On pavements hard and hot ?
The dust is in the breezes,
Stinks of petrol stain the air,
But youth has come to London,
And has found a garden there.

Poetry, Art and Memories via the London Underground

I know that I did the right thing nine years ago, when I left London and came home to Cornwall. But there are things I miss. My stock answer is bookshops, museums and galleries, friends and colleagues. The wealth of choices.

But when a certain book, a lovely new edition of Poems on the Underground, appeared I realised that there was something more.The buzz, the indefinable something that London has because the big city is made up of so many wonderful small things. A mosaic if you like, while Cornwall is an oil painting.

Poems on the Underground was one of those wonderful small things. I was commuting when it began and I remember spotting a poem where an advertisement would usually be for the first time, and then seeing more and more.

I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for commuting days …

Many poems struck a chord, called up a memory, but none more than this one that had lived in my head ever since my mother read it to me when I was very young.

The Tyger by William Blake

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

* * * * *

And not only did it pull me back to my childhood, not only did it take me back to the London Underground, it took me back to the National Gallery too.

For around five years I had an office that was five minutes away from the bookshops in Charing Cross Road and five minutes away from the National Gallery. I spent most of my lunch breaks in one or the other.

I was taken back to one picture, striking on the page, but so much more powerful, so utterly compelling when you stand in front of it.

Surprised! by Henri Rousseau

I really didn’t think that one lovely book, one memorable poem, could stir up so much and take me so far.

In which The Classics Club poses a question …

It sounds like such a simple question:

What is your favourite classic book? Why?

But to provide a single answer, to pick out just one author and one book is very nearly impossible.

So many wonderful books, with so many different qualities. And I know that how I feel about books will change with my state of mind, will change as my life evolves, will change as I read and re-read books ….

I might have given you a different answer, tomorrow I might hear the call of another classic. but today I know which book I must choose.

It leaves me lost for words, and so I shall leave you with a cover image and with opening words that must surely draw you in ….

“A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships -laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal – are borne along to the town of St. Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river-brink, tingeing the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures, and the patches of dark earth made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. There is a remnant still of last year’s golden clusters of beehive-ricks rising at intervals beyond the hedgerows; and everywhere the hedgerows are studded with trees; the distant ships seem to be lifting their masts and stretching their red-brown sails close among the branches of the spreading ash. Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.”

Which classic would you pick?

I do wish I could be Miss Cash’s pupil …

“During the whole of that month they were hardly ever apart, together penetrating whole tracts of spiritual territory, in what, because they were new to her, seemed to Bella startling and perilous feats of exploration. During the daytime they went for long walks; sometimes through Warwickshire lanes where bare branches made a bridge for leaping squirrels; sometimes over the spine of the Clents, that miniature range which divides the basin in which the Black Country fumes and smoulders from the mountain-girdled green of the Severn Plain; returning thence wintry sunsets glowing behind them, to the welcoming warmth and secrecy of Miss Cash’s blue room, which was no longer an arcanum of mysteries but a natural setting for this new, gracious mode of life.

Sometimes they visited galleries and gazed at pictures. In those days the despised pre-Raphaelites were coming into their own, and Miss Cash, who had known Burne-Jones and seen Rossetti and Swinburne, and actually penetrated the Gothic glooms of William Morris’s house, was in the position of a disciple justified by their resurrection. Sometimes they made pilgrimages to the great churches that lay within reach: Worcester, Gloucester, Lichfield and Tewkesbury; and those visits were an even richer experience for Miss Cash knew a great deal about architecture and this art appealed more directly to Bella than any other – though, indeed, everything she saw in Miss Cash’s company was enriched and coloured by the inward light of her adoration.

Yet even more enchanting than those expeditions were the long quiet evenings when they settled down to long talks or silences, or to reading aloud in the warmth of the fire and the apricot glow of lamplight and the aromatic smoke of Miss Cash’s cigarettes. They read together a great deal of poetry and sometimes novels, particularly those of Meredith, who was not only a poor relation of Miss Cash’s beloved pre-Raphaelites but also, like herself, an active Feminist.”

From White Houses by Francis Brett Young (1935)