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.

Edmund-Vass-driver-24-bus-Hampstead-Heath-station1

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.

Work, Commuting, and a Poem From The Underground

Tomorrow I have a new job, and for the first time in around eight years I won’t be able to walk to work. It won’t be a bad trip – just a couple of miles in the car, out of town to a nice modern building on an industrial estate – and I could walk it, but not each way every day.

But a  certain book that has been sitting on our dining table for a while now, a lovely new edition of Poems on the Underground, reminded me of past journeys to work that I remember with some fondness.I’m recalling a time when I was living in North London, in Queensbury, which was (and I’m sure still is) near the end of the Jubilee Line. That meant that I always got a seat and so I could sit and read happily all the way to Charing Cross. Then I just had a five-minute walk, across Trafalgar Square and up St Martin’ Lane to my desk.

The journey took a certain amount of time, but I got so much reading done.

I’ve written before about browsing and buying in Charing Cross Road in my lunch breaks. What I haven’t confessed before is that there were times when I headed into the Charing Cross branch of Waterstones on the way home as well. Not too often, but often enough.

And with Charing Cross being at the very end of the Jubilee Line I almost always got a seat for the journey home. And that was more reading done.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. I can forget the disrupted journeys, the early starts and late nights, but I can remember the wealth of book shops and the regular blocks of guilt free reading time …

I realise now that I have the book that I must have missed many Poems on the Underground, poems where  advertisements would usually be, when my nose was stuck firmly in a book.

This is one of them that caught my eye.

Sonnet XLIII by Edna St Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

* * * * *

I didn’t discover Edna St Vincent Millay until a few years after I left London, but now I love her.

So it is worth looking up from your book from time to time to see what you can see in the world around you.

And it’s always worth looking in poetry anthologies, because you might just find the poem or the poet you didn’t know you was missing from your life.

New Year’s Eve: A Waking Dream

dark-night-full-moon

I have not any fearful tale to tell
Of fabled giant or of dragon-claw,
Or bloody deed to pilfer and to sell
To those who feed, with such, a gaping maw;
But what in yonder hamlet there befell,
Or rather what in it my fancy saw,
I will declare, albeit it may seem
Too simple and too common for a dream.

Two brothers were they, and they sat alone
Without a word, beside the winter’s glow;
For it was many years since they had known
The love that bindeth brothers, till the snow
Of age had frozen it, and it had grown
An icy-withered stream that would not flow;
And so they sat with warmth about their feet
And ice about their hearts that would not beat.

And yet it was a night for quiet hope:-
A night the very last of all the year
To many a youthful heart did seem to ope
An eye within the future, round and clear;
And age itself, that travels down the slope,
Sat glad and waiting as the hour drew near,
The dreamy hour that hath the heaviest chime,
Jerking our souls into the coming time.

But they!-alas for age when it is old!
The silly calendar they did not heed;
Alas for age when in its bosom cold
There is not warmth to nurse a bladed weed!
They thought not of the morrow, but did hold
A quiet sitting as their hearts did feed
Inwardly on themselves, as still and mute
As if they were a-cold from head to foot.

O solemn kindly night, she looketh still
With all her moon upon us now and then!
And though she dwelleth most in craggy hill,
She hath an eye unto the hearts of men!
So past a corner of the window-sill
She thrust a long bright finger just as ten
Had struck, and on the dial-plate it came,
Healing each hour’s raw edge with tender flame.

There is a something in the winds of heaven
That stirreth purposely and maketh men;
And unto every little wind is given
A thing to do ere it is still again;
So when the little clock had struck eleven,
The edging moon had drawn her silver pen
Across a mirror, making them aware
Of something ghostlier than their own grey hair.

Therefore they drew aside the window-blind
And looked upon the sleeping town below,
And on the little church which sat behind
As keeping watch upon the scanty row
Of steady tombstones-some of which inclined
And others upright, in the moon did show
Like to a village down below the waves-
It was so still and cool among the graves.

But not a word from either mouth did fall,
Except it were some very plain remark.
Ah! why should such as they be glad at all?
For years they had not listened to the lark!
The child was dead in them!-yet did there crawl
A wish about their hearts; and as the bark
Of distant sheep-dog came, they were aware
Of a strange longing for the open air.

Ah! many an earthy-weaving year had spun
A web of heavy cloud about their brain!
And many a sun and moon had come and gone
Since they walked arm in arm, these brothers twain!
But now with tim餠pace their feet did stun
The village echoes into quiet pain:
The street appear餠very short and white,
And they like ghosts unquiet for the light.

‘Right through the churchyard,’ one of them did say
-I knew not which was elder of the two-
‘Right through the churchyard is our better way.’
‘Ay,’ said the other, ‘past the scrubby yew.
I have not seen her grave for many a day;
And it is in me that with moonlight too
It might be pleasant thinking of old faces,
And yet I seldom go into such places.’

Strange, strange indeed to me the moonlight wan
Sitting about a solitary stone!
Stranger than many tales it is to scan
The earthy fragment of a human bone;
But stranger still to see a grey old man
Apart from all his fellows, and alone
With the pale night and all its giant quiet;
Therefore that stone was strange and those two by it.

It was their mother’s grave, and here were hid
The priceless pulses of a mother’s soul.
Full sixty years it was since she had slid
Into the other world through that deep hole.
But as they stood it seemed the coffin-lid
Grew deaf with sudden hammers!-’twas the mole
Niddering about its roots.-Be still, old men,
Be very still and ye will hear again.

Ay, ye will hear it! Ye may go away,
But it will stay with you till ye are dead!
It is but earthy mould and quiet clay,
But it hath power to turn the oldest head.
Their eyes met in the moon, and they did say
More than a hundred tongues had ever said.
So they passed onwards through the rapping wicket
Into the centre of a firry thicket.

It was a solemn meeting of Earth’s life,
An inquest held upon the death of things;
And in the naked north full thick and rife
The snow-clouds too were meeting as on wings
Shorn round the edges by the frost’s keen knife;
And the trees seemed to gather into rings,
Waiting to be made blind, as they did quail
Among their own wan shadows thin and pale.

Many strange noises are there among trees,
And most within the quiet moony light,
Therefore those aged men are on their knees
As if they listened somewhat:-Ye are right-
Upwards it bubbles like the hum of bees!
Although ye never heard it till to-night,
The mighty mother calleth ever so
To all her pale-eyed children from below.

Ay, ye have walked upon her paven ways,
And heard her voices in the market-place,
But ye have never listened what she says
When the snow-moon is pressing on her face!
One night like this is more than many days
To him who hears the music and the bass
Of deep immortal lullabies which calm
His troubled soul as with a hushing psalm.

I know not whether there is power in sleep
To dim the eyelids of the shining moon,
But so it seemed then, for still more deep
She grew into a heavy cloud, which, soon
Hiding her outmost edges, seemed to keep
A pressure on her; so there came a swoon
Among the shadows, which still lay together
But in their slumber knew not one another.

But while the midnight grop餠for the chime
As she were heavy with excess of dreams,
She from the cloud’s thick web a second time
Made many shadows, though with minished beams;
And as she look餠eastward through the rime
Of a thin vapour got of frosty steams,
There fell a little snow upon the crown
Of a near hillock very bald and brown.

And on its top they found a little spring,
A very helpful little spring indeed,
Which evermore unwound a tiny string
Of earnest water with continual speed-
And so the brothers stood and heard it sing;
For all was snowy-still, and not a seed
Had struck, and nothing came but noises light
Of the continual whitening of the night.

There is a kindness in the falling snow-
It is a grey head to the spring time mild;
So as the creamy vapour bow餠low
Crowning the earth with honour undefiled,
Within each withered man arose a glow
As if he fain would turn into a child:
There was a gladness somewhere in the ground
Which in his bosom nowhere could be found!

Not through the purple summer or the blush
Of red voluptuous roses did it come
That silent speaking voice, but through the slush
And snowy quiet of the winter numb!
It was a barren mound that heard the gush
Of living water from two fountains dumb-
Two rocky human hearts which long had striven
To make a pleasant noise beneath high heaven!

Now from the village came the onward shout
Of lightsome voices and of merry cheer;
It was a youthful group that wandered out
To do obeisance to the glad new year;
And as they passed they sang with voices stout
A song which I was very fain to hear,
But as they darkened on, away it died,
And the two men walked homewards side by side.

By George MacDonald

A Merry Christmas to One and All

Christmas 2012

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
Is it really come again,
With its memories and greetings,
With its joy and with its pain?
There’s a minor in the carol,
And a shadow in the light,
And a spray of cypress twining
With the holly wreath to-night.
And the hush is never broken
By laughter light and low,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
‘Tis not so very long
Since other voices blended
With the carol and the song!
If we could but hear them singing
As they are singing now,
If we could but see the radiance
Of the crown on each dear brow;
There would be no sigh to smother,
No hidden tear to flow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
This never more can be;
We cannot bring again the days
Of our unshadowed glee.
But Christmas, happy Christmas,
Sweet herald of good-will,
With holy songs of glory
Brings holy gladness still.
For peace and hope may brighten,
And patient love may glow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”

Francis Ridley Havergal

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.

Hope …

It’s been a difficult day …

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

by Emily Dickinson

Isn’t it wonderful what a difference the right words at the right time can make?