Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Edwin Muir: The Horses

Edwin Muir was another contemporary of Edward Thomas's.  He was born in Orkney, but later his parents moved to Glasgow, where he was very unhappy, having lost his parents and brothers in quick succession, and having to endure a series of awful jobs working in factories and offices, including one factory which turned bones into charcoal . . .  Unsurprisingly he looked upon his Orkney childhood as idyllic and the dichotomy of his move to the city and unhappiness shaped his work as a poet.

THE HORSES  by Edwin Muir

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb; 
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. 

Acknowledging from whence I copied the poem.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

An Ivor Gurney poem - I Saw England (July Night)

NOT England in this photo, but I wanted some sunshine!  This is Valerian growing at New Quay, Cardiganshire, back in the summer.


She was a village
Of lovely knowledge
The high roads left her aside, she was forlorn, a maid -
Water ran there, dusk hid her, she climbed four-wayed,
Brown-gold windows showed last folk not yet asleep;
Water ran, was a centre of silence deep,
Fathomless deeps of pricked sky, almost fathomless
Hallowed an upward gaze in pale satin of blue,
And I was happy indeed, of mind, soul, body even
Having not given
A sign undoubtful of a dear England few
Doubt, not many have seen,
That Will Squele he knew and was so shriven,
Home of Twelth Night - Edward Thomas by Arras fallen,
Borrow and Hardy, Sussex tales out of Roman heights callen,
No madrigals or field-songs to my all reverent whim;
Till I got back I was dumb.

Although contemporaries, in poetry and as soldiers in WWI, I don't believe that Ivor Gurney and Edward Thomas ever met, yet Gurney had read ET's poetry, and in a short piece I have found in an article on the PN Review Online (which you have to be a member to access fully), thee is a quote about Thomas's poems from a letter Gurney wrote in November of 1917:

"Very curious they are, very interesting; nebulously intangibly beautiful.  But he had the same sickness of mind I have - the impossibility of serenity for any but the shortest space.  Such a mind produces little."

Gurney is suggesting that ET had the same mental instablility as Gurney - which saw him spent the latter half of his life in a mental asylum - he had self-diagnosed himself with neurasthenia.  I have read that Thomas WAS diagnosed with the same complaint at some point, but it is perhaps best not to jump to the obvious conclusions.  Thomas's poetry never really showed any imbalance in the way that Gurney's later poetry did.  Perhaps his writing about "the other man" or other subliminal approaches in his poetry or prose suggested this to Gurney - who would recognize it, being a fellow sufferer?

I know that Edward Thomas's widow Helen went to visit Gurney from 1932 onwards when he was in the asylum and once took him a map of Gloucestershire (how thoughtful of her) which brought him alive in a way few other things could, apart from music, which was his first love and real talent.  She kept up the meetings until his death from TB in 1937.

 She wrote of their first meeting:

‘we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said, ‘You are Helen, Edward’s wife and Edward is dead.’ And I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him.’ (H. Thomas, Time and Again: Memoirs and Letters, ed. M. Thomas, 1978, pp. 11-112.)  (This was copied from The Ivor Gurney Collection page - HERE.)

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

TO E.T. by Robert Frost

A sideways step today, with a poem by Robert Frost, who was such a close friend of Edward Thomas's and gave him so much encouragement to become and stay a poet.

Looking across Llandyfeisant churchyard.


I slumbered with your poems on my breast,
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb,
To see if in a dream they brought of you

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained -
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what is lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you - the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine;
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Robert Frost.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Signpost by R S Thomas

I am going to try and post poetry regularly, Edward Thomas and his contemporaries.  Here is R S Thomas, who is another addition to my poetry library.


Casgob, it said, 2
miles.  But I never went
there; left it like an ornament
on the mind's shelf, covered

with the dust of
its summers; a place on a diet
of the echoes of stopped
bells and children's

voices; white the architecture
of its clouds, stationary
its sunlight.  It was best
so, I need a museum

for storing the dream's
brittler particles in.  Time
is a main road, eternity
the turning that we don't take.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

First Known When Lost

That is the title of an excellent poetry blog I visit (see my sidebar on Codlins and Cream).  I thought I would start the New Year off with poetry, and have been reading poems daily this past week.  Thomas Hardy, R S Thomas, Edward Thomas. . .  I hope you enjoy this one of ET's:


I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone, - the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill,

It was not more than a hedge overgrown,
One meadow's breadth away
I passed it day by day,
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel make some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary, rises there.

This is one of my favourite poems of Edward Thomas.  How we often take things for granted in the familiar landscape around us, hardly deigning it with a second glance until it is altered, ruined . . .

Edward Thomas walked like the rest of us drew breath.  It was his escape from reality, his reward for hard work, his balm, his challenge, his inspiration, his creative time, his life.  In a day he might walk 20 miles or far more, taking in the landscape he saw around him in great minutiae, jotting down sentences, descriptions in his notebook to write up later in his poetic prose which finally matured into poetry.  I can just imagine him pulling up short by this little field edge corner and thinking, it was there yesterday and now . . . and out came his notebook.