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52 Poems, Week 52: The House of Christmas (Chesterton)

THE HOUSE OF CHRISTMAS

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

*

And so the 52 Poems series comes to an end in what I think is a very appropriate way. There is a roughly 4/5 complete list of the entries in "Here" section of the sidebar. Thanks to all who contributed to, discussed, or just quietly enjoyed this project. 


52 Poems, Week 51: Miami Woods (William Davis Gallagher)

MIAMI WOODS (excerpt)

Sage monitors of youth are wont to say
The eye grows early dim to nature’s charms,
And commerce with the world soon dulls the ear
To heavenliest sounds. It may be so; but I,
Whose feet were on the hills from earliest life,
And in the vales, and by the flashing brooks,
Have not so found it: ---deeper in my heart,
Deeper and deeper year by year, has sunk
The love of nature, in my close, and long,
And fond companionship with woods and waves,
With birds and breezes, with the starry sky,
The mountain-height, the rocky gorge, the slope
Mantled with flow’rs, and the far-reaching plain
That mingles with the heavens. It is not so –
It is not so save where the ear grows dull
To God’s own voice, and the averted eye
Thick filmed with sin, is darkened thus, and lost
To all his visible glory. The green fields
Are studded with their golden buttons still
And living with their gilded butterflies,
That pass not unobserved. The rocky pool,
In which the robin bathes his dusky plumes,
The tufted flow’rs that smile beyond, the slope
That from its margin greenly steals away
To bordering woodlands fill’d with airy tongues
Still lure us from the hot and dusty road
As in the years gone by…..

…..Years change us not so much,
Nor commerce with the world; but groveling thoughts,
Vaulting ambitions, unrepressed desires,
Whose oft-indulgence blunts the edge of youth:
These early dim the eye to nature’s charms,
And early dull the ear to heavenliest sounds.

----------------------------------------------------

Child of my love!
Oh, count it fortunate thou art the child
Of Nature also. To this double bond
Be faithful. Coming years will tempt thee sore –

But in the trials and the triumphs Life
May have in store for thee, forget thou not
The haunts wherein thy childhood met with love,
And peace, and beauty; where in tranquil ways
Thy chafing spirit thou didst often soothe;
And where, as thy young heart has felt, God walked
With Nature and with thee.

*

This is an excerpt from a long poem (roughly 1500 lines) by William Davis Gallagher (1808-1894), Miami Woods, published in 1881. I came across this poet quite by accident, while looking up another author in the Oxford Companion to American Literature. This poem was apparently quite popular in its day, and although its style is both imitative and dated, the Companion says that Gallagher’s original descriptions of nature are “among the region’s best,” the region here being the American Midwest (the “Miami” referred to is at the western edge of Ohio, north of Cincinnati, an area still known for its beauty).

The thing that struck me most, however, and something I was not expecting, was the poem's theological vision. I have no idea of Gallagher's religious background, but the occasional theological bits in the poem are reminiscent of Hopkins. They show a belief in God as present in Creation, not pantheistically as in Wordsworth, and not as a transcendent Being of whom Nature is a mere sign, as in Emerson, Whittier, etc., but as a God who is both immanent and transcendent. This comes through quite directly and unapologetically, although the poem is not "religious" verse.

The other thing that’s striking is the thread of sadness that runs through the poem. It seems that Gallagher lost a teenage daughter to a lengthy illness of some sort, one symptom of which affected her reason. The poem, written over a number of years, reflects on this loss quite movingly.

--Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies, which he's put to good use working for a medical laboratory for the past 15 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews and occasionally has gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa


52 Poems, Week 50: The Wish (Abraham Cowley)

THE WISH

Well then! I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy ;
    And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
    Of this great hive, the city.

Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave
May I a small house and large garden have ;
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
    And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A Mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian angels are,
    Only beloved and loving me.

O fountains! when in you shall I
Myself eased of unpeaceful thoughts espy?
O fields! O woods! when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
    Here's the spring-head of Pleasure's flood :
Here's wealthy Nature's treasury,
Where all the riches lie that she
    Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

Pride and ambition here
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear ;
Here naught but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter,
And naught but Echo flatter.
    The gods, when they descended, hither
From heaven did always choose their way :
And therefore we may boldly say
    That 'tis the way too thither.

How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exlude
In deserts solitude.
    I should have then this only fear:
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
    And so make a city here.

*

I approve this message.

As I said at the beginning of this project, I knew I wouldn't have any trouble finding a poem to post every week, and I haven't. But I didn't think about how difficult it might be to pick one from the many possibilities. That difficulty became acute this week, since there were only three weeks left. I've tended to shy away from obvious Great Poems, not because I'm tired of them, because I'm not, but because I thought it would be interesting to explore roads less traveled by. I agree with Nabokov, or at least with a character in one of his novels, that "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening" is one of the greatest lyrics in the English language. But I think just about everybody with the least bit of interest in literature is familiar with it, not to mention a lot of people who aren't particularly interested, but read the poem in school and found that it touched something in them.

So I leafed through both volumes of the Norton Anthology I used in college fifty years ago and happened on this poem (in Volume 1, which goes up to roughly 1800). If I read it back then I've forgotten both it and its author (1618-1667). The anthologist's note slights Cowley, charging that he

persuaded himself not only that he should be, but that he actually was, a poet of overpowering wit and rhapsodic genius. "The Muses' Hannibal" was his favorite epithet for himself.... [A]fter his death he quickly sank in public esteem.... "The Wish," with its modest scope and genuine appreciation of homely pleasures, suggests where his tastes and talents really lay.

I copied the text from the estimable Luminarium site.


52 Poems, Week 49: Corruption (Henry Vaughan)

CORRUPTION

SURE, it was so. Man in those early days
   Was not all stone and earth:
He shin’d a little, and by those weak rays
   Had some glimpse of his birth.
He saw heaven o’er his head, and knew from whence 5
   He came, condemnèd, thither;
And, as first love draws strongest, so from hence
   His mind sure progress’d thither.
Things here were strange unto him; sweat and till;
   All was a thorn or weed;
Nor did those last, but—like himself—died still
   As soon as they did seed;
They seem’d to quarrel with him; for that act,
   They fell him, foil’d them all;
He drew the curse upon the world, and crack’d
   The whole frame with his fall.
This made him long for home, as loth to stay
   With murmurers and foes;
He sighed for Eden, and would often say
   ‘Ah! what bright days were those!’
Nor was heav’n cold unto him; for each day
   The valley or the mountain
Afforded visits, and still Paradise lay
   In some green shade or fountain.
Angels lay leiger here; each bush, and cell,
   Each oak, and highway knew them;
Walk but the fields, or sit down at some well,
   And he was sure to view them.
Almighty Love! where art Thou now? mad man
   Sits down and freezeth on;
He raves, and swears to stir nor fire, nor fan,
   But bids the thread be spun.
I see, Thy curtains are close-drawn; Thy bow
   Looks dim too in the cloud;
Sin triumphs still, and man is sunk below
   The centre, and his shroud.
All’s in deep sleep and night: thick darkness lies
   And hatcheth o’er Thy people—
But hark! what trumpet’s that? what angel cries
   ‘Arise! thrust in Thy sickle?’

*

I'm told that part of this poem is an Advent selection in Elizabeth Goudge's book A Diary of Prayer, which sounds like a book worth having. The poem strikes me as more Last Judgment than Advent, but it's nevertheless applicable as a picture of the situation in which our waiting takes place.


52 Poems, Week 48: Danny Deever (Kipling)

DANNY DEEVER

‘What are the bugles blowin’ for?' said Files-on-Parade.
‘To turn you out, to turn you out,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes you look so white, so white?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
    The Regiment’s in ’ollow square—they’re hangin’ him to-day;
    They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
    An’ they're hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What makes the rear-rank breathe so ’ard?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s bitter cold, it's bitter cold,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What makes that front-rank man fall down?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ’im round,
    They ’ave ’alted Danny Deever by ’is coffin on the ground;
    An’ ’e’ll swing in ’arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound—
    O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin!’

‘’Is cot was right-’and cot to mine,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘’E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘I’ve drunk ’is beer a score o’ times,’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘’E’s drinkin’ bitter beer alone,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ’im to ’is place,
    For ’e shot a comrade sleepin’—you must look ’im in the face;
    Nine ’undred of ’is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace,
    While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

‘What’s that so black agin the sun?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny fightin’ ’ard for life,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
‘What’s that that whimpers over’ead?’ said Files-on-Parade.
‘It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.
    For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ’ear the quickstep play,
    The Regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
    Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
    After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

*

I've mostly kept to a rule in these posts of letting the poem speak first for itself without introduction from me, and put any comments I wanted to make afterwards. But I was very strongly tempted to break it in this case. It could probably have used some kind of warning, and some readers may be annoyed that I threw this grim piece in their faces without one.

I don't have any real strong reason for having chosen it--only that I happened to think of it a few days ago, so I read it, and I think it's brilliant in its grim and horrible way. Kipling has never been exactly fashionable, though he was once popular. No doubt nowadays he's considered evil--imperialist and racist and so on, which he is, though that of course is not the whole story. But I doubt there is an honest poet who wouldn't like to have written something as powerful as this.

The poem leaves you with a big question: why did he do it? Why did he shoot that sleeping comrade? Files-on-Parade doesn't seem to think he was a bad sort. I wonder if he might have been a timid person, tormented by a bully into a mad act of revenge. Or perhaps he really was just a sneakin' shootin' hound. The Colour-Sergeant seems to think so, but that doesn't stop him from pitying the man.


52 Poems, Week 47: Thanks (W.S. Merwin)

THANKS

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

*

This poem, like the other Merwin one I posted, is very much still under copyright and not reprinted here with anyone's permission at all.

Since I've been posting these poems on Thursdays and today happens to be Thanksgiving Day, I thought an appropriate poem would be appropriate. 

 


52 Poems, Week 46: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young (Wilfred Owen)

THE PARABLE OF THE OLD MAN AND THE YOUNG

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

*

That last line has been reverberating in my mind over the past week or two as discussions of the armistice that temporarily ended the Great War have taken place. Wilfred Owen, as I suppose everybody knows, died in that war, leaving behind a handful of poems about it that have become classics. This is not the best known, but like I said: that last line.

Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918. His mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day.

That war does not cast as dark a shadow over the U.S. as it does over Europe. I don't think I fully grasped the extent of the catastrophe that it was until sometime in adulthood when I saw a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. She lost her brother and her fiance and several friends in the war. My maternal grandmother served in the Red Cross in France. And I recall a picture of my paternal grandfather in an Army uniform, and I think that also was during the war. But very little in the way of family stories about their experiences came down to my generation, and now there is no one to ask.

Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac" makes similar use of Abraham and Isaac.

I've always thought the song would be better without that last verse, and ended on "...beauty of the word." I don't know exactly what the peacock means, though, and perhaps I would like that verse better if I did. But it's a great song anyway.

I also have a bit of a theological quarrel with this:

A scheme is not a vision,
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.

That suggests that there would be something grand about the demon's approach. But nasty little schemes are very much in the demonic line.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Poems, Week 45: Bridge Morning (Sally Thomas)

BRIDGE MORNING

The child outside the swinging door
Heard her mother say,
I won't make something of myself
Stuck at home all day.

Honey, said a languid voice,
Some days I'm so depressed
By toilet bowls and groceries
I almost can't get dressed.

Another friend remarked, I told
My husband that, I said,
'Lanier, you hear me out. I am
Too young to feel this dead.'

I saw my doctor, cried a third.
He said to me, 'Miz Wade,
You get a little job and leave
That child home with the maid.'

All the while, the pattering cards
Were shuffled, dealt, and drawn.
Ice rattled in the glasses. Outside,
S.E. mowed the lawn.

The child sat on her leather stool
Behind the swinging door
And watched Princetta move across
The chessboard of the floor.

Princetta's hands were black and broad,
Their palms pale-pink as lips
Before the public smile's drawn on
In red. Around her hips

White apron strings, crisscrossed and tied,
Strained as she bent to see
Light biscuits rising, and to sieve
Black silted leaves from tea.

Child, Princetta said, you scoot.
You in Princetta's way.

She backed out through the swinging door
With her heavy silver tray.

 

"Bridge Morning" first appeared in Modern Age and is reproduced here with the permission of the poet.

*

The name is pronounced "Prinsetta," by the way.

This poem is pretty close to perfect. The "pretty close" is really just a formality, a legalistic gesture of acknowledgement that nothing in this world is truly perfect. I guess it helps if you know the world depicted here, but, just as with John Betjeman's Extremely English work, I don't think it's necessary. 

That last line is what makes it, gesturing, or maybe just glancing significantly, away from the domestic scene to a wider world of injustice and tragic history--and more, discernment of which I will leave to your insight. The tray is heavy, the tray is silver: those two words do so much. And they sound so well together there, a perfect exemplar of the "sound and sense" motto. But that line only works as well as it does because everything leading up to it is so precisely convincing.

Sally Thomas--I almost said "is a real person." What I mean is that she's not a name in a book, an alleged person who wrote some poems long ago and far away, but someone who lives in the same world I do. I've never actually met her but she's a good friend of a good friend and we've met online.  Some years ago, before Facebook, when blogs were more popular and this one in particular hosted more conversation than it presently does, she sometimes commented here. 

Here is her web site. She also writes excellent fiction. This poem is from her collection Fallen Water, and if you like "Bridge Morning" I strongly recommend the book. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Poems, Week 44: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad? (Yeats)

WHY SHOULD NOT OLD MEN BE MAD?

Why should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell,
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

*

I've been trying to avoid posting more than one poem by any poet in this series, and there are a number of people who should be included but haven't yet been. So why am I doing another one by Yeats? The problem with some of the not-included--and I'm thinking primarily of Shakespeare, Keats, and Eliot here--is that their great work is lengthy, and I don't want to do excerpts. I guess one of Keats's odes might do for a blog post, but the one I really want is "The Eve of St. Agnes," which is several hundred lines.  

I really wish Yeats had come up with something better than "social welfare dream" with which to praise the woman whom I assume to be his great unrequited love, Maud Gonne. I wonder what the description meant to him. To me and I suspect to many of our time it conjures up a social worker, which may be a praiseworthy occupation, or in some cases may not, but in any case isn't an image that makes the heart beat faster, and doesn't seem at all compatible with "Helen." (See "No Second Troy" for comparison.)

I'm also a little puzzled by the "lighted screen." Something on which insects are examined, maybe? Anyway, the idea is plain enough.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

 


52 Poems, Week 43: Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind (Carl Sandburg)

FOUR PRELUDES ON PLAYTHINGS OF THE WIND

The past is a bucket of ashes.

                    1

The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.


                    2

The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation:
  nothing like us ever was.

The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation,
  nothing like us ever was.

                    3

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation,
  nothing like us ever was.

And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
  … and the only listeners left now
  … are … the rats … and the lizards.

And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,"
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation:
  nothing like us ever was.

The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,"
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.

                    4

The feet of the rats
scribble on the door sills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

*

We've discussed this poem here before. I read it in high school and although I don't think it's exactly a great poem its basic idea and imagery have stayed with me. The applicability to our own civilization is perhaps greater now. Or perhaps not. In the mid''60s our cultural confidence was considerably higher than it is now. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.