The following introduction to our third installment of "Blasts from the Past" has been generously provided by Tom Merrill, who also selected the poems published herein.
Asked by [THT Editor] Michael Burch if I would like to do this again, for
Christmas as it were, and pluck down another vibrant star from the poetic
firmament, I was glad for the opportunity, and began reacquainting myself with a
number of worthy candidates for review, all of them writers who achieved
prominence in the earlier part of the last century. Gerard Manley Hopkins had
already died, in 1889, but Thomas Hardy was still writing then, as were A. E.
Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and
Robert Frost--for an ample handful of still familiar names from
that rich, and perhaps unparalleled, period of poetic efflorescence. And of
course Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot had begun exerting their critical powers, and
causing quite a stir in literary circles, and gaining much notice and celebrity.
In fact it is partly due to an observation made by Eliot in one of his critical
essays that I chose Harold Monro, a Scotch poet born in Brussels and educated at
Cambridge, to introduce to readers in this third installment of "Blasts From the
Eliot singled out Monro as one of the two poets "of a
somewhat older generation than mine" whose poetry was closer to being "the
real right thing." (The other was Yeats.) In summing up his high opinion of
Monro, Eliot predicted that his poetry would "... remain because, like every
other good poet, he has not simply done something better than anyone else, but
done something that no one else has done at all." Which brings to mind a
question: who today has heard of Harold Monro?
While it seems to me Eliot was perfectly right in
admiring Monro, I think he was wrong in implying that poetic novelty--in
case he meant by "something no one else has done" any sort of sharp break in
either theme or style with the art's tradition--established a poet's
right not to be forgotten or his claim to permanence. That Monro's voice
sometimes has, to my ear anyway, a truly singular beauty, seems to me a better
reason for his deserving a renewed audience, even if his general style and
subject matter do not seem to me so radically different from those of other
remarkable poets of his day. And perhaps it is just because his style does not
seem such a startling departure from theirs that he is not, contrary to
Eliot's expectation, so well remembered today, when the "poetry" most favored
by Captains of the Industry seems to be that which bears the least family
resemblance to the best historic examples. While I can easily enough share
Eliot's appreciation of his uniqueness and originality, and in fact
find Monro's poetic touch exquisitely delicate sometimes--and
profoundly musical--I don't see these characteristics as setting him so
distinctly apart from other genuine poets, or find them a truly compelling
reason for singling out only Monro, and one other writer from that dazzling
literary era, as composers of something approaching "the real right thing" in
poetry. Among a number of unique, original and genuine poets writing at the
time, and expressing their deepest cares and preoccupations in their own
naturally peculiar style, Monro remains one striking example of high poetic
accomplishment. Nor does he sound in the least bit quaint or oldfashioned,
either, even if he is not as different from other poets of his day as some
Like Eliot himself, Monro could be a tad sardonic in his
poetry, as in one of the poems presented below, "Suburb." But less like
Eliot, he could also be surpassingly tender, as in "Nightingale Near The
House," which I personally regard as a poetic masterpiece of the rarest
quality. Love figured prominently in some of his best poetry, as in his
beautiful "Midnight Lamentation." Especially remarkable to me is his capturing
of mood, of atmosphere--the evocativeness of some of his poems.
"Nightingale Near The House" is perhaps the most superb example of
this. Somehow it reminds me of Mozart. So let there be music:
The Nightingale Near the House
Here is the soundless cypress on the lawn:
It listens, listens. Taller trees beyond
Listen. The moon at the unruffled pond
Stares. And you sing, you sing.
That star-enchanted song falls through the air
From lawn to lawn down terraces of sound,
Darts in white arrows on the shadowed ground;
And all the night you sing.
My dreams are flowers to which you are a bee
As all night long I listen, and my brain
Receives your song; then loses it again
In moonlight on the lawn.
Now is your voice a marble high and white,
Then like a mist on fields of paradise,
Now is a raging fire, then is like ice,
Then breaks, and it is dawn.
Autumn is in the air,
The children are playing everywhere.
One dare not open this old door too wide;
It is so dark inside.
The hall smells of dust;
A narrow squirt of sunlight enters high,
The floor creaks, and I hear a sigh,
Rise in the gloom and die.
Through the hall, far away,
I just can see
The dingy garden with its wall and tree.
A yellow cat is sitting on the wall
Blinking toward the leaves that fall.
And now I hear a woman call
Some child from play.
Then all is still. Time must go
Ticking slow, glooming slow.
The evening will turn grey.
It is sad in London after two.
All, all the afternoon
What can old men, old women do?
It is sad in London when the gloom
Thickens, like wool,
In the corners of the room;
The sky is shot with steel,
Shot with blue.
The bells ring the slow time;
The chairs creak, the hours climb;
The sunlight lays a streak upon the floor.
Tell me about that harvest field.
Oh! Fifty acres of living bread.
The color has painted itself in my heart.
The form is patterned in my head.
So now I take it everywhere;
See it whenever I look round;
Hear it growing through every sound,
Know exactly the sound it makes--
Remembering, as one must all day,
Under the pavement the live earth aches.
Trees are at the farther end,
Limes all full of the mumbling bee:
So there must be a harvest field
Whenever one thinks of a linden tree.
A hedge is about it, very tall,
Hazy and cool, and breathing sweet.
Round paradise is such a wall
And all the day, in such a way,
In paradise the wild birds call.
You only need to close your eyes
And go within your secret mind,
And you'll be into paradise:
I've learnt quite easily to find
Some linden trees and drowsy bees,
A tall sweet hedge with the corn behind.
I will not have that harvest mown:
I'll keep the corn and leave the bread.
I've bought that field; it's now my own:
I've fifty acres in my head.
I take it as a dream to bed,
I carry it about all day. . . .
Sometimes when I have found a friend
I give a blade of corn away.
Dull and hard the low wind creaks
Among the rustling pampas plumes.
Drearily the year consumes
Its fifty-two insipid weeks.
Most of the grey-green meadowland
Was sold in parsimonious lots;
The dingy houses stand
Pressed by some stout contractor's hand
Tightly together in their plots.
Through builded banks the sullen river
Gropes, where its houses crouch and shiver.
Over the bridge the tyrant train
Shrieks, and emerges on the plain.
In all the better gardens you may pass,
(Product of many careful Saturdays),
Large red geraniums and tall pampas grass
Adorn the plots and mark the gravelled ways.
Sometimes in the background may be seen
A private summer-house in white or green.
Here on warm nights the daughter brings
Her vacillating clerk,
To talk of small exciting things
And touch his fingers through the dark.
He, in the uncomfortable breach
Between her trilling laughters,
Promises, in halting speech,
Hopeless immense Hereafters.
She trembles like the pampas plumes.
Her strained lips haggle. He assumes
The serious quest. . .
Now as the train is whistling past
He takes her in his arms at last.
It's done. She blushes at his side
Across the lawn--a bride, a bride.
The stout contractor will design,
The lazy laborers will prepare,
Another villa on the line;
In the little garden-square
Pampas grass will rustle there.
When you and I go down
Breathless and cold,
Our faces both worn back
To earthly mould,
How lonely we shall be!
What shall we do,
You without me,
I without you?
I cannot bear the thought
You, first, may die,
Nor of how you will weep,
We are too much alone;
What can we do
To make our bodies one:
You, me; I, you?
We are most nearly born
Of one same kind;
We have the same delight,
The same true mind.
Must we then part, we part;
Is there no way
To keep a beating heart,
And light of day?
I could now rise and run
Through street on street
To where you are breathing–you,
That we might meet,
And that your living voice
Might sound above
Fear, and we two rejoice
Within our love.
How frail the body is,
And we are made
As only in decay
To lean and fade.
I think too much of death;
There is a gloom
When I can’t hear your breath
Calm in some room.
O, but how suddenly
Either may droop;
Countenance be so white,
Then there may be a place
Where fading flowers
Drop on a lifeless face
Through weeping hours.
Is then nothing safe?
Can we not find
Some everlasting life
In our one mind?
I feel it like disgrace
Only to understand
Your spirit through your word,
Or by your hand.
I cannot find a way
Through love and through;
I cannot reach beyond
Body, to you.
When you or I must go
There’ll be no more to say
–But a locked door.
The Silent Pool
I have discovered finally to-day
This home that I have called my own
Is built of straw and clay,
Not, as I thought, of stone.
I wonder who the architect could be,
What builder made it of that stuff;
When it was left to me
The house seemed good enough.
Yet, slowly, as its roof began to sink,
And as its walls began to split,
And I began to think,
Then I suspected it;
But did not clearly know until today
That it was only built of straw and clay.
Now I will go about on my affairs
As though I had no cares,
Nor ever think at all
How one day soon that house is bound to fall,
So when I'm told the wind has blown it down
I may have something else to call my own.
I have enquired who was the architect,
What builder did erect.
I'm told they did design
Million and million others all like mine,
And argument with all men ends the same:--
It is impossible to fix the blame.
I am so glad that underneath our talk
Our minds together walk.
We argue all the while,
But down below our argument we smile,
We have our houses, but we understand
That our real property is common land.
At night we often go
With happy comrades to that real estate,
Where dreams in beauty grow,
And every man enjoys a common fate.
At night in sleep one flows
Below the surface of all argument;
The brain, with all it knows,
Is covered by the waters of content.
But when the dawn appears
Brain rises to the surface with a start,
And, waking, quickly sneers
At the old natural brightness of the heart.
Oh, that a man might choose
To live unconsciously like beast or bird,
And our clear thought not lose
Its beauty when we turn it into word.
Those quarrelings between my brain and heart
(In which I'd take no part)
Pursue their violent course
Corrupting my most vital force
So that my natural property is spent
In fees to keep alive their argument.
Look downward in the silent pool:
The weeds cling to the ground they love;
They live so quietly, are so cool;
They do not need to think, or move.
Look down in the unconscious mind:
There everything is quiet too
And deep and cool, and you will find
Calm growth and nothing hard to do,
And nothing that need trouble you.
Since man has been articulate,
Mechanical, improvidently wise
(Servant of Fate),
He has not understood the little cries
And foreign conversations of the small
Delightful creatures that have followed him
Not far behind;
He failed to hear the sympathetic call
Of Crockery and Cutlery, those kind
Of his domestic happiness; the Stool
He sat on, the Door he entered through:
He has not thanked them, overbearing fool!
What is he coming to?
But you should listen to the talk of these.
Honest they are, and patient they have kept,
Served him without his Thank-you or his Please...
I often heard
The gentle bed, a sigh between each word,
Murmuring before I slept.
The candle, as I blew it, cried aloud,
And in a smoky argument
Into the darkness went.
The kettle puffed a tentacle of breath:--
"Pooh! I have boiled his water, I don't know
Why; and he always says I boil too slow.
He never calls me 'Sukie dear,' and oh,
I wonder why I squander my desire
Sitting submissive on his kitchen fire."
Now the old Copper Basin suddenly
Rattled and tumbled from the shelf,
Bumping and crying: "I can fall by myself;
Without a woman's hand to coax and flatter me,
The lean and poise of gravitable land."
It gave a raucous and tumultuous shout,
Twisted itself convulsively about,
Rested upon the floor, and, while I stare,
It stares and grins at me.
The old impetuous Gas above my head
Begins irascibly to flare and fret,
Wheezing into its epileptic jet,
Reminding me I ought to go to bed.
The Rafters creak; an Empty-Cupboard door
Swings open; now a wild Plank of the floor
Breaks from its joist, and leaps behind my foot.
Down from the chimney half a pound of Soot
Tumbles, and lies, and shakes itself again.
The Putty cracks against the window-pane.
A piece of Paper in the basket shoves
Another piece, and toward the bottom moves.
My independent Pencil, while I write
Breaks at the point: the ruminating Clock
Stirs all its body and begins to rock,
Warning the waiting presence of the Night,
Strikes the dead hour, and tumbles to the plain
Ticking of ordinary work again.
You do well to remind me, and I praise
Your strangely individual foreign ways.
You call me from myself to recognize
Companionship in your unselfish eyes.
I want your dear acquaintances, although
I pass you arrogantly over, throw
Your lovely sounds, and squander them along
My busy days. I'll do you no more wrong.
Purr for me, Sukie, like a faithful cat.
You, my well trampled Boots, and you, my Hat,
Remain my friends: I feel, though I don't speak,
Your touch grow kindlier from week to week.
It well becomes our mutual happiness
To go toward the same end more or less.
There is not much dissimilarity,
Not much to choose, I know it well, in fine,
Between the purposes of you and me,
And your eventual Rubbish Heap, and mine.
Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive--this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realization warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You'll only die.
Here's a new day. O pendulum move slowly!
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg.
I am alive--this I.
And in a moment Habit, like a crane,
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable,
Gathering me, my body, and our garment,
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question,
Into the daylight--why?
I think of all the others who awaken,
And wonder if they go to meet the morning
More valiantly than I;
Nor asking of this Day they will be living:
What have I done that I should be alive?
O, can I not forget that I am living?
How shall I reconcile the two conditions:
Living, and yet--to die?
Between the curtains the autumnal sunlight
With lean and yellow finger points me out;
The clock moans: Why? Why? Why?
But suddenly, as if without a reason,
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination
All gather in tumultuous joy together,
Running like children down the path of morning
To fields where they can play without a quarrel:
A country I'd forgotten, but remember,
And welcome with a cry.
O cool glad pasture; living tree, tall corn,
Great cliff, or languid sloping sand, cold sea,
Waves; rivers curving; you, eternal flowers,
Give me content, while I can think of you:
Give me your living breath!
Back to your rampart, Death.