In No Direction
Either I sent leaf or stick
Twirling in the air,
Whose fall might be prophetic,
Or undertook the climb
That I had avoided
Directionless some other time,
Or had not avoided,
Or called as companion
Some eyeless ghost
And held his no direction
Till my feet were lost.
Walls, mounds, enclosing corrugations
Of darkness, moonlight on dry grass.
Walking this courtyard, sleepless, in fever;
Planning to use – but by definition
There’s no way out, no way out –
Rope-ladder, baulks of timber, pulleys,
A rocket whizzing over the walls and moat –
Machines easy to improvise.
No such thing; to dream of new dimensions,
Cheating checkmate by painting the king’s robe
So that he slides like a queen;
Or to cry, ‘Nightmare, nightmare’!
Like a corpse in the cholera-pit
Under a load of corpses;
Or to run the head against these blind walls,
Enter the dungeon, torment the eyes
With apparitions chained two and two,
And go frantic with fear –
To die and wake up sweating by moonlight
In the same courtyard, sleepless as before.
The seven years’ curse is ended now
That drove me forth from this kind land,
From mulberry-bough and apple-bough
and gummy twigs the west wind shakes,
To drink the brine of crusted lakes
And grit my teeth on sand.
Now for your cold, malicious brain
And most uncharitable, cold heart,
You, too , shall clank the seven years’ chain
On sterile ground for all time cursed
With famine’s itch and flames of thirst,
The blank sky’s counterpart.
The load that from my shoulder slips
Straightway upon your own is tied:
You, too, shall scorch your finger-tips
With scrabbling on the desert’s face
Such thoughts I had of this green place,
Sent scapegoat for your pride.
A brook from fields of gentle sun,
Through the glade its water heaves,
The falling cone would well-nigh stun
The Squirrel wantonly lets drop
When up he scampers to tree-top
And dives among the green.
But no, I ask a surer peace
Than vengeance on you could provide.
So fear no ill from my release;
Be off, elude the curse, disgrace
Some other green and happy place –
This world of fools is wide.
Why say ‘death’? Death is neither harsh nor kind:
Other pleasure or pains could hold the mind
If she were dead. For dead is gone indeed,
Lost beyond recovery and need,
Discarded, ended, rotted underground –
Of whom no personal feature could be found
To stand out from the soft blur evenly spread
On memory, if she were truly dead.
But living still, barred from accustomed use
Of body and dress and motions with profuse
Reproaches (since this anguish on her grew
Do I still love her as I swear I do?)
She fills the house and garden terribly
With her bewilderment, accusing me,
Till every stone and flower, table and book,
Cries out her name, pierces me with her look,
‘You are deaf, listen!
You are blind, see!’
How deaf or blind,
When horror of the grave maddens the mind
With those same pangs that lately choked her breath,
Altered her substance, and made sport of death.
The Cool Web
But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
Song of Contrariety
At summons of your dream-despair
She might not disobey,
But slid close down beside you there,
And complaisant lay.
Yet now her flesh and blood consent
In the hours of day,
Joy and passion both are spent,
Twining clean away.
Is the person empty air,
Is the spectre clay,
That love, lent substance by despair,
Wanes and leaves you lonely there
On the bridal day?
The flowers of innocence shall cease
And like a harp the wind shall roar
And the clouds shake an angry fleece.
‘Here, here is certitude,’ you swore,
‘Below this lightning-blasted tree.
Where once it struck, it strikes no more.
Such prophesies of joy awaken
the toad who dreams away the past
Under your hearth-stone, light forsaken,
Who knows that certitude at last
Must melt away in vanity –
No gate is fast, no door is fast –
That thunder bursts from the blue sky,
That gardens of the mind fall waste,
That fountains of the heart run dry.
Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:
Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head.
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That shivering glory not to be despised.
Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark – a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.
To the galleys, thief, sweat your soul out
With strong tugging under the curled whips,
That there your thievishess may find full play.
Whereas, before, you stole rings, flowers and watches,
Oaths, jests and proverbs,
Yet paid for bed and board like an honest man,
This shall be entire thiefdom: you shall steal
Sleep from chain-galling, diet from sour crusts,
Comradeship from the damned, the ten-year-chained –
And, more than this, the excuse for life itself
From a craft steered toward battles not your own.
The China Plate
Quite a museum-piece,’ an expert cries
(Eyeing it through the ready pocket-lens) –
As through a glass case would be less sepulchral
Than the barrow-hears!
‘A few coppers’ – here once again
The purchaser’s proud hand lifts down
The bargain, displays the pot-bank sign
Scrawled raggedly underneath.
Enough, permit the treasure to forget
The emotion of that providential purchase,
Becoming a good citizen of the house
Like its fellow-crockery.
Let it regain a lost habit of life,
Foreseeing death in honourable breakage
Somewhere between the kitchen and the shelf –
To be sincerely mourned.
Write off the expense
Of stationary against experience,
And salvage no small beauties or half-lines.
You took the wrong turn, disregarded signs
Winking along your track,
Until too close-committed to turn back.
Fetch the book here
And burn it without fear,
Grateful at least that, having gone so far,
You still know what truth is and where you are,
With better things to say
In you own bold, unmarketable way.
Leaving the Rest Unsaid
Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.
Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?
But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.
So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing
At a careless comma,
There are some poets to whom Poetry is a craft. To others it is an avocation, or a hobby, or merely a means of expression much resembling prose, only written in shorter lines. None of these types is worthy of the name ‘poet’.
But once or twice in a century one comes across a man or woman who can truly be called a poet. Such beings possess the full panoply of skills, abilities and attributes the Muse demands: an honourouble character, a deep and extensive knowledge of his or her own native tongue, both historical and contemporary, a good grasp of his or her own poetic tradition, the languages related to his or her own native tongue, a thorough familiarity with Greek Mythology, the History, Geography, Literature associated with his or her own poetic tradition, Philology, Orthography, a superior intelligence,which is matched with superior intuition, and the ability to step easily and lightly between the trance and waking state.
Needless to say that all who claim to write poetry are not poets, and today this Royal calling is debased beyond all recognition. That is why Robert Graves is one of my best-loved poets. I have never found him to disappoint, nor does he fall the slightest bit short of the highest standards. With the rarest skill, and the deftest touch he bends his skills to meet the exigencies of love, and beautifully resolve its dilemmas and conflicts. His appeal for me has never flagged, and his example in modern times has never been matched, let alone surpassed.