7 October 2010

In honour of national poetry day...

I'm a keen appreciator of poetry. I don't sit swooning, opiated under the boughs of uninterested trees - and I tend rather unfairly to neglect more modern works - but I'm a great memoriser of verse, with a taste for a rhyming structure. Its a point of regret for me that my Scottish education rarely encompassed Scottish poets - save for the occasional crumb of Burns or drop of McCaig - spending most of our time eyeing the works of nature with the English Romantics. One discovery from those school days which has stuck with me is the sensitive spirit that is Gerard Manley Hopkins. His The Windhover was the first poem I ever committed entirely to memory and I can summon it up whole to this day. I am also very fond of his other works, including the almost impenetrable As Kingfishers catch fire which, once preserved in mind, springs lyrically from the tongue while its squinting reader finds herself stumped and stumbling at its strange cadences and impressionistic, half-grammatical imagery. Being unable to enter into the religious worldview has always been part of the charm. I recently quoted from Alan Bennett's History Boys, in particular the speech in which the teacher Hector justifies the memorisation of poetry in the following lines:

"Read it now, learn it now, and you’ll know it whenever. We’re making our deathbeds here boys."

This thought echoes my own feelings. Fill your head, train your mind - who knows when a verse may find its resonance with you, and its particular significance and weight. It is also no bad thing to have a lyrical phrase or two knocking about inside your skull, to be disgorged at an apt and strategic moment. If you are to be haunted by ghosts of language, no harm in them being eloquent and expressive spectres. Pondering which poem to choose in honour of today, I finally settled on Tennyson's Ulysses. It is a poem of indefatigablity, of curiosity, of vivacity and of human incompleteness - all thoughts I find myself much in sympathy with. It is also a poem which wryly elbows any sense that old age should justify slowing, stopping, treacly solidification. Its also not without its gentle irony at the absurdity of the narrator, Odysseus.  Embracing that daftness - and our own undignified dignity in the daftness - that too speaks to an admirable human spirit ~

~ Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees; all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

    This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

    There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


  1. My own Scottish education in a rural secondary school in the late 80s saw no romantic English poets. We had a lot of MacCaig, Lochhead, Morgan, Tom Leonard, a dash of Douglas Dunn, and from our neighbouring kingdom Hughes, Gunn, Plath, Larkin, Owen, and a touch of Auden (with a dsah of GM Hopkins thrown in to discuss assonance)

    Excessive exposure of the young to the many delights of the romantic poets smacks of the sort of thing that Mr Gove is trying to impose on the poor unfortunates south of the border.

  2. Ha! You mean Gove of the bee-stung bouche is attempting to work up a generation of English children that'll turn into me?

    Odd, really, that they'd draw on such different materials. Then again, I've written here before about the odd properties of my bourgeois Unionist secondary education, which mostly ran to learning all about the modern history of Germany and not mentioning Scotland once. A similar poetic treatment seems a logical extension, perhaps. There was also a lot of Shakespeare in the mix, which I also appreciated. That said, we did also get a few of those you mention including Larkin and the ubiquitous "War poets".