Thursday 7 October 2010

Forever England

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK. The New Statesman is even publishing a recently discovered poem by Ted Hughes to mark the occasion, a comment on the suicide of Sylvia Plath, his onetime wife. Drat: I'll have to buy the bally thing! Anyway, I suppose I should have held over my post on Philip Larkin until today. No, not really, because the things I have to say about poets and poetry are virtually inexhaustible!

I once had an exchange on Wikipedia in which I shocked a poetical purist by saying that I much preferred the poetry of Rupert Brooke, that golden boy of a golden age, to that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It’s not a technical thing. It’s easy to recognise that Owen and Sassoon are far more original and accomplished than Brooke when it comes to craft of poetry; I just love Brooke, love his words, love his gentle, naïve and simple rhythms; I love his patriotism as much as I am repelled by the pacifist mood ushered in by the work of the war poets.

George Orwell summoned up the period before the outbreak of the Great War thus;

From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breath forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and crème-de-menthe and soft-centred chocolates-an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on the green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.

There is for me one poem that evokes more than any other the taste of those ices and the lilt of that tune – The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, Brooke’s home thoughts from abroad;

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
'Du lieber Gott!'

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.

ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Cambridge people sometimes smile, Rupert, when they hear these beautiful words and think of you in that corner of a foreign field that is forever England.


  1. He truly is a fine poet. It is a shame he's not given the recognition by many which he ought naturally be afforded. Though of course the finest poet of the early 20th century(though he was already in his final years by then) was Houseman.


    Another local connection. I visited the semi-attached 'umble abode where Sid Barret died of complications from insanity.

  3. For me Houseman is a bit like the curate's famous egg - good in parts! I have to say that I find a lot of his poems overly sentimental and a tad too mawkish for my taste.

  4. Really? I don't see houseman mawkish at all. I see him as being a dark orb of profound sincerity who moves the mid-night tides like a blanket over the ill of spirit. He was a romantic in an increasingly un-romantic age.


  5. There pass the careless people
    That call their souls their own;
    Here by the road I loiter,
    How idle and alone.

    Ah, past the plunge of plummet,
    In seas I cannot sound,
    My heart and soul and senses,
    World without end, are drowned.

    His folly has not fellow
    Beneath the blue of day
    That gives to man or woman
    His heart and soul away.

    There flowers no balm to sain him
    From east of earth to west
    That's lost for everlasting
    The heart out of his breast.

    Here by the labouring highway
    With empty hands I stroll:
    Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,
    Lie lost my heart and soul

    Do you not find that lovely?

  6. Yes, I do, but I did say good in parts! I was still at school when I read Houseman and the chief impression he left was of a slight obsession with death, loss, passing and decay.

  7. Death is vastly more seducing than life.

  8. I disagree. Life is the great challenge, the great adventure. :-)

  9. For those who deserve it, it is. Some are born to live--others are born to die. Some live too long--some live not long enough. Justice in this field is only acquired through self-knowledge. You know that you are the daughter of Eros. I am but the ashes of Thanatos.

  10. The idea that Houseman was a finer poet than Yeats is hardly tenable. The poem Adam pastes here is little better than doggerel.

    I enjoyed the Grantchester poem ... hadn't read it in full before. I don't understand why Ana is repelled by the pacifist mood ushered in by the work of the war poets. Pacifism seems a natural enough reaction to the horror of that awful, pointless suffering and waste of life.

    I posted something on WWI on my blog this morning, as it happens.

  11. Brendano,
    Yeates is a fine poet. But Houseman is better--one has to be a miserable Englishman to understand this. You are not English--Ana's not miserable...hence my point is proved.

  12. Eros and Psyche, Adam. Perhaps I should change my name to Voluptas. :-))

  13. In the immortal words of Monty Python (posing as an Australian arts critic): "Only pooftahs write poetry."

    I favour Eris, myself.

  14. Hey, steady on, Brendano; nobody mentioned Yeats! No matter: Yeats is a superlative poet; I have no argument at all with that. I adore so much of his verse, but An Irish Airman Foresees his Death is a particular favourite. I have thought of some of the lines when I’ve been flying, the lonely impulse of delight which drove me to the tumult in the clouds, not that I foresee my own death!

    The point I was making about pacifism really has to be understood in the context of British interwar history as a whole. The initial euphoria at victory quickly turned to horror, understandable horror, at the cost, which turned to the admirable desire that such a thing should never happen again. But as the 1920s turned to the 1930s, as the world turned into a far more dangerous place, then it was vital that the country was at least prepared for the eventuality of war. The pacifist mood, which Owen and Sassoon did so much to contribute to, had the effect of seriously undermining national morale to the point where it was almost too late. People fail to realise that while Churchill did his part in warning of the German menace Neville Chamberlain played a part in buying time through the now generally discredited policy of appeasement. The simple truth is that England was not ready for war in 1938 and hardly ready in 1939. Pacifism is admirable in an ideal world but we do not live in an ideal world.

    Thanks for alerting me to your blog. I'll have a look as soon as I can.

  15. Apparently(according to to-day's Telegraph) one of Dave's friends has similar views on German as I do.

  16. Calvin, would that be one of the Bruces? :-))

  17. What view would that be, Adam? :-)

  18. That to truly love Houseman one must be a miserable English person. As Powell was and as I am. You love life too much to truly cherish Housman, Brendano has too much of the Celtic spirit to love him. Houseman is rain o'er a neglected canal, he is the blood that flows on a winter lawn, he is the sacrificial slaughter of one's deeper consciousness.

  19. I agree that pacifism would have been of no use against a monstrous evil such as Nazism, which had to be fought. But it would have been extremely worrying if the pointless mass slaughter of WWI had been accepted as somehow normal, and I'm not sure how far the likes of Sassoon and Owen can be 'blamed' in any case.

    I mentioned Yeats because Adam described Houseman as 'the finest poet of the early 20th century'. That's a bit like favouring Donovan over Dylan, Adam. :-)

  20. Donovan and Dylan both had their moment, for me the finest music of(roughly) that time was The Nice, Soft Machine, early Pink Floyd..all culminating with King Crimson.

  21. Brendano, yes, indeed, What repels me is not horror of war, a perfectly natural reaction, but an a priori determination not to fight war, no matter the circumstances. Sassoon and Owen contributed in their own way to this determination.

  22. Oi! Orwell! What's wrong with crème-de-menthe ya bastard? I've gone right off you now, George.

    Seriously, darling Stasi, there is one more space on the spectrum for the odious. I'm sure you omitted it only by oversight because it's been so prolific in recent years that it's unmissable.

    It's the determination to fight war, no matter the circumstances.

  23. Hey, Retarius, he didn't say there was anything wrong with it. :-))