Posts Tagged ‘English poetry.’

Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)













In No Direction

To go in no direction
Surely as carelessly,
Walking on the hills alone,
I never found easy.

Either I sent leaf or stick
Twirling in the air,
Whose fall might be prophetic,
Pointing ‘there’,



Or in superstition
Edged somewhat away
From a sure direction,
Yet could not stray.

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.





















The Castle

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 escape,
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.


Here Robin on a tussock sits,
And Cuckoo with his call of hope
Cuckoos awhile, then off he flits,
While peals of dingle-dongle keep
Troop-discipline among the sheep
That graze upon the slope.

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.















The Presence

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

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky.
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

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.






There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy, or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

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

Far away is close at hand,
Close joined is far away,
Love shall come at your command,
Yet will not stay.

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?




















Be assured, the Dragon is not dead
But once more from the pools of peace
Shall rear his fabulous green head.

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.



‘Two lovers in one house agree.
The roof is tight, the walls unshaken.
And now, so must it always be.’

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.

















Sick Love

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

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

From a crowded barrow in a street-market
The plate was ransomed for a few coppers,
Was brought gleefully home, given a place
On a commanding shelf.

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!



For weeks this plate retells the history
Whenever an eye runs in that direction:
‘Near perdition I was, in a street market
With rags and old shoes.’

‘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 dispense sandwiches at a party
And not be noticed in the drunken buzz,
Or little cakes at afternoon tea
When cakes are in demand.

Let it regain a lost habit of life,
Foreseeing death in honourable breakage
Somewhere between the kitchen and the shelf –
To be sincerely mourned.






















Burn It!

Fetch your book here,
That you have fought with for half a year
(Christmas till May)
Not intermittently but night and day
Need but enhance your satisfaction
In swift and wholesome action.

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

Finis apparent on an earlier page,
Wit fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?

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.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)































“Gabble-gabble,… brethren, …gabble – gabble!”
My window frames forest and heather.
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
Not knowing not much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.











Outside it blows wetter and wetter,
The tossing trees never stay still.
I shift my elbows to catch better
The full round and sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro
In silence like a shadow-show.










The parson’s voice runs like a river
Over smooth rocks, I like this church:
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is like a chain
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”











I add the hymns up, over and over,
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (look! there’s a plover!
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?
The red light from his mantle passes
Across the broad memorial brasses.










It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,
With ugly serious people linking
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.




















Alright then, in deference to recent comments,  here is a belated 2¢ worth.



The marvelous thing about this poem – besides its astringency,  vibrancy and  precocious irreverence, is the that it observes the present moment with the use of all the natural  senses – excepting perhaps smell – the absence of which, in the close confines of a weather-beset English congregation might have been more than just a qualified mercy.

It is interesting for me to see Graves use the characteristically very female literary device of ‘Stream of Consciousness’,  in order to drive his poem, and in addition, to place before us the streaming thoughts of this very appealing child.

Others, of course most notably James Joyce, plundered the form and made off with the loot to his great remunerative and professional advantage, (though Dorothy  Richardson herself, who invented the style,  died in poverty) but I don’t think that before I came across this poem, I had found Graves to have adopted this particular style.

As  I read “A Boy in Church,” the thought began to occur to me for the first time that this form and style may indeed have originated in the mind of the little Dorothy Richardson during her childhood. 

And why shouldn’t it after all? Neotony is of course one of the outstanding hallmarks of cognitively superiorly developed species —  and the skills and perceptions we form in childhood repeatedly prove to be the fertile ground from which our most vigorous adult perceptions spring. The works of Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are replete with childhood recollections, retrieved, re-worked and re-inserted directly into their novels and short-stories.

The consciousness in Grave’s  poem is brisk, with no trace of  the  laxity  one expects to find in the company of wandering thoughts  frequently provoked when in boring surroundings. There is a huge appreciation for each of the things which rise up to charm engage and captivate the mind, both inside the church and in the rain-sodden world outside.

The trees swaying in the drunken ecstasy of their prayers are in stark, melodramatic contrast to the parson’s trite and banal addresses: this service after all, is demonstrably missing the uninhibited histrionics of Pentecostal fervour , and instead  asserts the very staid, steadfast and carefully measured  progress of the Church of England ritual.

The boy likes the weighted substantiality of his place of worship, which is echoed reassuringly in the well put-together pews and their sober solidity. This is unsurprising, because even as children find them to be dull and restrictive, the steady reliable social norms and structures  which surround them tend to provide children with the stable white noise in the backgrounds of their childhoods, over which the real orchestra of original thinking can make its more complex music.

The windows in my own childhood church (staunchly Methodist) I remember as being above my head level and translucent, so as to permit the entrance of light but not of distractions. This might have been a very good thing for us schoolgirls for whom attendance at two church services on Sundays was compulsory. Nevertheless we contrived to while away the tedious hours playing with our handkerchiefs, folding and unfolding the corners to make little roses, and surreptitiously scraping the beeswax off the pews to form into little grey balls, as prisoners are said in the past to have rolled up their prison bread as a means of keeping count of the days, and we used these little grey masses to stick our collection money onto the backs of the pews which faced us.

The hymns were always curious and wonderful – I remember most of them even now. They were never the anæmic, politically correct pablum one hears today, but settled and confident in doctrinal assurance. They were firmly unembarrassed in their assertions and  prejudices. One hymn in particular comes to mind – “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which had a verse in which Ceylon was described as being a place “Where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.” We all sang these lines imperturbably and   without a trace of disquiet.

As a product of a British Colonial upbringing, I absorbed much of its calm certainties in the love of order which expresses itself in my tastes even today.  When I say  ‘order’ I don’t mean the staleness of unquestioned assumptions etc, but the beauty and balance required in order to make coherent the fast flowing current of thought and give it the structure it needs to stand up as a piece of writing. Respect for order is something I always recognise and appreciate in a Grave’s poem: Order such as  can take the onrush of thoughts and usher them in diligent retrospect into the necessary complements of stanzas, rhymes, metres etc needed to make a poem, but with the unobtrusive practicality which places such linguistic implements in attendance of the main subject  so to speak, so that they stand like attentive guardians who watch a child at play without interfering, unless she appears to be about to stumble into the deep end of the fish pond.

This Robert Graves does as he does everything else – vibrantly, efficiently, admirably and believably in matters of original insight and thinking – even in a deceptively simple little poem such as this. Graves brought the same degree of Lexical, Philological and Orthographic polish and rigour to his prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, which is why in these times of passive and negligent reading, he is not nearly as appreciated as other writers who are far less deserving of recognition.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner


















If you cut and paste it, this URL should take you to The Poetry Archive and a recording of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s voice, as she reads this wonderful monologue (a soliloquy but for two asides) worthy of, if not surpassing Shakespeare in its sheer Englishness.

The backward-glance upon her life and loves of England’s greatest monarch and Shakespeare’s queen, Elizabeth Tudor, in the moments preceding her death, is here convincingly  intuited by Warner, in lines and images which flow with a terrible dignity of purpose, as if defying the inexorable drift towards the final loss of consciousness that death imposes.

Much could be read into the almost broken ending of the poem, which leaves us with the image of a schoolboy concentrated on reading his lessons by firelight – or perhaps a young man reading a romance or a book of poetry.

One senses that Elizabeth knows that after the boy, or the young lad has read on until the last lively sparks of light from his brand are extinguished, and darkness comes to reign within his little home, that for him that darkness will last but for a night, whereas for her it will last much longer.

Everything in this poem fits so neatly, that I am tempted to infer that Sylvia may also have been thinking of  this fragment from Catullus V….

Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidie brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Suns may set and yet rise again, but
We, with our brief light, can set but once.
The night which falls is one never-ending sleep.

Warner’s almost magical reading, in her strong and aged voice, carries us with fluent assurance along the mysterious path through which our own minds can sometimes find their way into the minds of others, across the wide removes of stations of life and the centuries-long chasms of death and long-lost time.




None shall gainsay me. I will lie on the floor.

The death of Queen Elizabeth I

Hitherto from horseback, throne, balcony,

I have looked down upon your looking up.

Those sands are run. Now I reverse the glass

And bid henceforth your homage downward. falling

Obedient and unheeded as leaves in autumn

To quilt the wakeful study I must make

Examining my kingdom from below.

How tall my people are! like a race of trees

They sway, sigh, nod heads, rustle above me,

And their attentive eyes are distant as starshine.

I have still cherished the handsome and well-made:

No queen has better masts within her forests

Growing, nor prouder and more restive minds

An effigy of the queen

Scabbarded in the loyalty of subjects;

No virgin has had better worship than I.

No, no! Leave me alone, Woman! I will not

Be put to bed. Do you suppose

That I who’ve ridden through all weathers, danced

Under a treasury’s weight of jewels, sat

Myself to stone through sermons and addresses,

Shall come to harm by sleeping on a floor?

Not that I sleep. A bed were good enough

The Queen's signature

If that were in my mind. But I am here

For deep study and contemplation,

And as Persephone, and the red vixen,

Go underground to sharpen their wits,

I have left my dais to learn a new policy

Through watching of your feet, and as the Indian

Lays all his listening body along the earth

I lie in wait for the reverberation

Of things to come and dangers threatening.

Queen Elizabeth I

Is that the Bishop praying? Let him pray on.

If his knees tire his faith can cushion them.

How the poor man grieves Heaven with news of me!

Deposuit superbos. But no hand

Other than my own has put me down –

Not feebleness enforced on brain or limb,

Not fear, misgiving, fantasy, age, palsy,

Has felled me. I lie here by my own will,

And by the curiosity of a queen.

I dare say there is not in all England

One who lies closer to the ground than I.

Not the traitor in the condemned hold

Elizabeth when young.

Whose few straws edge away from under his weight

Of ironed fatality; not the shepherd

Huddled for cold under the hawthorn bush,

Nor the long dreaming country lad who lies

Scorching his book before the dying brand.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's signature.









This biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner is courtesy of The Poetry Archive.

Sylvia Townsend Warner [1893-1978] is best known today as a groundbreaking feminist and lesbian writer who championed the cause of the outsider in novels such as Lolly Willowes. However, this is only one aspect of a writer whose literary career also encompassed poetry, short stories, essays, biography and translation. The publication by Carcanet in 2008 of a Collected Poems has prompted an overdue reassessment of Townsend Warner as a poet of great imaginative scope and variety.

Townsend Warner was born in Harrow-on-the-Hill where her father was a housemaster at Harrow School. They shared a close relationship and his early death brought her happy childhood to an end. By contrast, her relationship with her mother was always strained.

Her first love was music – only the outbreak of the First World War prevented her from studying composition with Schoenberg. Instead she moved to London and embarked on a decade-long task of scholarship, editing the 10 volume Tudor Church Music. She made friends among the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s one of whom, David Garrett, was instrumental in getting her first book published by Chatto and Windus, a poetry collection called The Espalier [1925].

Valentine Ackland

However, it was the publication of Lolly Willowes the following year that brought her recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. 1926 was also a turning point for Townsend Warner personally when she met and fell in love with a young poet, Valentine Ackland. The couple lived together until Ackland’s death in 1969. Their first home was in Chaldon Herring in Dorset where they were able to live in comparative freedom. For the rest of their lives the couple tended to seek out rural seclusion, in Norfolk and finally Dorset again. The English countryside, its beauty and hardships, is an important shaping force in Townsend Warner’s work.

This relative isolation did not stop them from being actively engaged in issues of their time. Alarmed by the rise of Facism, Ackland and Townsend Warner both became active members of the Communist party and made several trips to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Their lives at this time, and much of their writing, were charged with politics, such a Townsend Warner’s 1938 novel After the Death of Don Juan.

In all, Townsend Warner published seven novels, four volumes of poetry and a huge number of short stories, 144 of which were published in The New Yorker. She wrote right up to her death, her last book of stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, appearing in 1977. Townsend Warner died on May Day 1978 and her ashes were interred, along with Valentine Ackland’s, under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Townsend Warner’s writing is its sheer variety, not just in terms of genre, but also subject matter and approach. Her novels range widely across time and place, from revolutionary Paris [Summer Will Show], the South Sea Islands [Mr Fortune’s Maggot], to a 14th century priory in East Anglia [The Corner that Held Them] while her poetry encompasses ballads, epitaphs, narrative, love poems and burlesque.

However certain themes thread through these contrasting works: what one critic has described as a “sardonic rural and suburban pastoralism” gives much of her writing a witty, subversive edge. Alongside an appreciation of the absurdist aspects of human behaviour is an empathy with the outsider – the misfits struggling to protect their individuality within an oppressive society.

Her poetry is also distinctive for its formal complexity, perhaps not surprising given her early immersion in music. Sometimes this musicality is combined with a tough realist edge, as in her hard-hitting poems about her experiences in Spain and the Second World War. Elsewhere, particularly in her love poems to Ackland, she captures an emotional intensity in which “the kindling of language and flesh seem one” [John Wilkinson, University of Notre Dame, Project Muse].

Another powerful theme is the onset of age, exemplified in her Archive recording, ‘Gloriana Dying’. A dramatic monologue in flexible blank verse, it movingly imagines the aging Elizabeth I as she faces her impending death. Read by the elderly poet, it’s deeply touching in its combination of physical vulnerability and toughness of spirit and mind. The poem ends with a remarkable acknowledgement that the great Gloriana now has more in common with the least of her subjects – the prisoner, the shepherd and the humble “long-dreaming country lad”.

Townsend Warner once commented wryly “I intend to be a posthumous poet”. The revival of interest in her poetry has encouraged a fresh appreciation of this aspect of a writer described by one critic as “second only to Virginia Woolf among the women writers of our century.”


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Robert Graves

To turn men into stone on sight is the particular magic of Medusa – but to turn a stone sculpture into a woman  is how the Goddess Aphrodite answers Pygmalion’s prayer. Pygmalion is only human – though his origins hearken back to the Phoenician royal house.  His desires are modest – all he wants is a perfect woman,  – one who can meet his impossibly high standards,  and he is willing to take both spiritual and temporal steps to procure her.

It might be that he desired only that stone be turned to flesh – but he hadn’t counted on the perversity of that flesh – to wish that it would always accompanied by spirit.

This kind of thinking is very much in vogue, from the New-Age assertions about the power of affirmations to materialise our wishes and desires, to the ‘Prosperity’ based preachments trumpeted from the pulpits of mega churches and the programs broadcast by televangelists. But more than that, it has been around for a very long time.  Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies concur that our ‘thought-forms’ under the correct circumstances can become ‘real’.

Incarnation – the ability of spirits or divinities like  Christ and Galatea  to become flesh, are popular staples in the belief systems of millions of people even today,  as is the belief in Reincarnation, (or as the Greeks called it, Metampsychosis) which is  the ability of the spirit or soul being born and reborn in different bodies. These are of course  just different shades of the same enduring belief.

What did Pygmalion really believe? They say he fell in love with Cyprian Aphrodite – the same Goddess adored by Sappho, but she of course rejected his advances, whereupon in order to assuage his longing he created the flawless sculpture of a woman.  Some say he made a sculpture of Aphrodite herself.

Then Pygmalion laid the statue beside himself in his bed, and fervently prayed to the Goddess… and she took pity on him, and brought the sculpture to life  – as Galatea.

This of course is Robert Grave’s spine-tingling version of the tale in his poem.


Galatea and Pygmalion.













Galatea, whom his furious chisel
From Parian stone had by greed enchanted
Fulfilled, so they say, Pygmalion’s longings:
Stepped from the pedestal on which she stood,
Bare in his bed laid her down, lubricious.
With low responses to his drunken raptures,
Enroyalled his body with her demon blood.

Alas, Pygmalion had so well plotted
The articulations of his woman monster
That schools of eager connoisseurs beset
Her single person with perennial suit;
Whom she (a judgement on the jealous artist)
Admitted rankly to a comprehension
Of themes that crowned her own, not his repute.




So Pygmalion got his dearest wish: A goddess breathed life into the image of perfection as he himself conceived it, and that he himself  had made. Though the sculpture was at first lifeless and unresponsive to his desperate passion, divine offices rendered it otherwise, and she then graciously and wantonly submitted herself to him.  This was the  moment in life unrivaled in its perfection, when  that which is most long for and desperately desired  delivers itself into one’s hands.  It is also a moment which never lasts.  On the other side of this incredibly fulfilled wish, is a sea of the darkest horror waiting to unleash its tides.  One wonders that Pygmalion did not feel a cold hand brushing against the back of his neck….

The sequence of events is clear: Pygmalion, for whom the mortal imperfections of women are an insurmountable impediment to love, falls in love with a goddess. Motivated by his intense and unbearable longing for her, he sculpts her perfect image. He then presumes to take her to his bed – and with the fire of his passion and his passionate importunities to the Goddess, she is brought to life. Or, alternatively, he kindles passion in what was before a lifeless object – a mere ideal. He  succeeds in transferring his love from its first perfect and unattainable form, to one which he has now attained and which in part by the magic of his sexual enchantments by which he has induced to come to life the expression of perfection which is Galatea.

Some versions would have it that forgetful of all else but his rapture, that Pygmalion neglected to make an offering to the Goddess as an expression of his gratefulness to her as a recipient of her favours – and that this is the reason for the devastation which followed.

I myself do not subscribe to this belief, as it strikes me as an example of the ‘what if’ and ‘of only I had’ type of thinking we indulge in when everything has gone dreadfully wrong.  We do it largely so that we can go on clinging to the memory of the past.

The fact is, that though Pygmalion was the creator and Galatea the created, she was perfect: whereas he was not.  This is the creation story turned on its head.  Nor is this incarnation placed beside Pygmalion by her own free will. She was created by a mortal, placed in his bed by him insensate, and brought to life by the Goddess whose indwelling  spark vivifies her.  She has both human and divine attributes because she is the result of the collaboration between a mortal man and the Goddess Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love. She is perfect in a way that only an idealisation, and therefore no mortal woman could be perfect.

Could Pygmalion have been aware of his predicament? Or was he too euphoric to notice that things were perhaps just not adding up? We humans know about these types of liaisons between ordinary mortals and the perfect beings they long for and fall in love with and by a stroke of unheard of good luck manage to procure: liaisons that are impossible from the very first moment they take shape. But we are blinded by the stunning thrill of madness we feel when a dream comes true. After all, we feel that we have performed some kind of miracle – we don’t know how we did it, but God knows, we have made it happen! So we steadfastly ignore what we know to be true at the back of our minds. But often we have waited so long and and expended so much of ourselves creating this dream and bringing it to life, that even as we play out our passions with the reality  ignore the fact that we are really making love with a fantasy.

This is the moment when we might do well to look at the negative space within us that is now being so gloriously filled – the shape that exactly fitted the space which exactly corresponded to the shape that was waiting for this Goddess incarnate step into.

In the last verse of Grave’s  ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’ – a verse which he later expunged  this is what happens….

Down stepped Galatea with a sigh
“Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am , constant as various,
Not marbel-hearted but your own true love
Give me an equal kiss as i kiss you…”

The first thing that Galatea does when she comes to life is sigh – and  if he had not already been lost, this inauspicious sigh should have sent a shiver down Pygmalion’s back – but who knows _ perhaps it did….

Glatatea then makes a promise  – a promise in which there is something very sinister: a promise that almost sounds like a warning.   She  promises to “wake him from the bonds of sullen flesh.” This promise is sealed with a brazen lie. Pygmalion may have heard the truth, but he chose only to to believe the lie.  He probably does not even notice that she has asked him to do the impossible, which is to kiss her as an equal.

Pygmalion should have been suspicious from the very start. He had all the information he needed in order to piece things together – but he wouldn’t  – or blinded by love, he couldn’t.

Galatea was never going to be satisfied with Pygmalion, and his stuffy little list of requirements, his cloying importunities –  his assumptions that he could shape her behaviours  and choices as he shaped her shape – were doomed to go unmet and unsatisfied. It was inevitable that  milk-white Galatea (that is indeed the meaning of her name)  with her uniqueness and perfect beauty would attract other lovers – and she would not refuse them. Rare indeed is the beautiful woman who will not wield her beauty as a weapon, and use it to her own advantage.

Only wives – and frequently not even they – agree to keep the patriarchal bargain – body and soul in exchange for a promise of security.  This is never the contract of the Muse when she takes a lover.

But who is to say that even  if the men and women the Muse takes as her lovers were to know ahead of time what would happen in the future – that they would not make the same choices anyway?  After all, we are only human, and we are driven by the need to love and be loved.

Graves being human, might have wished for a partially happy ending when he wrote ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’, but in his calling as a True Poet, he was bound to tell the unvarnished truth, and so the last verse with its small but passing hope was tidily put away.

Pygmalion to Galatea.











As you are woman, so be lovely:
Fine hair afloat and eyes irradiate,
Long crafty fingers, fearless carriage,
And body lissom, neither short nor tall.
So be lovely!

Ay you are lovely, so be merciful:
Yet must your mercy abstain from pity:
Prize your self-honour, leaving me with mine.
Love if you will; or stay stone-frozen.
So be merciful!

As you are merciful, so be constant:
I ask not you should mask your comeliness,
Yet keep our love aloof and strange,
Keep it from gluttonous eyes, from stairway gossip.
So be constant!

As you are constant, so be various:
Love comes to sloth without variety.
Within the limits of our fair-paved garden
Let fancy like a Proteus range and change.
So be various!

As you are various, so be woman:
Graceful in going as well armed in doing.
Be witty, kind, enduring, unsubjected:
Without you I keep heavy house.
So be woman!

As you are woman, so be lovely:
As you are lovely, so be various,
Merciful as constant, constant as various.
So be mine, as I yours for ever.














*(The concluding lines  of Pygmalion to Galatea as they appeared in Poems 1914-1926,  and later omitted)

Then as the singing ceased and the lyre ceased,
Down stepped proud Galatea with a sigh.
‘Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone,
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am, constant as various,
Not marble-hearted but your own true love.
Give me an equal kiss, as I kiss you.

And that is where the proposition shows itself to be what it was all along: something beyond the ability of a mere mortal. To ask such a thing of poor Pygmalion was to demand of him something he could never do. 

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Robert Graves












The Corner Knot

I was a child and overwhelmed; Mozart
Had snatched me up fainting and wild at heart
To a green land of wonder, where estranged
I dipped my feet in shallow brooks, I ranged
Rough mountains, and fields yellow with small vetch;
Of which, though long I tried, I could not fetch
One single flower away, nor from the ground
Pocket one pebble of the scores I found
Twinkling enchanted there. So for relief
“I’ll corner-knot,” said I, “this handkerchief,
Faithful familiar that, look, here I shake
In these cool airs for proof that I’m awake.”
I tied the knot, the aspens all around
Heaved, and the riverbanks were filled with sound;
Which failing presently, the insistent loud
Clapping of hands returned me to the crowd.
I felt and, fumbling, took away with me
The knotted witness of my ecstasy,
Though flowers and streams were vanished past recall,
The aspens, the bright pebbled beach and all.

But now grown older, I suspect Mozart
Himself had been snatched up by curious art
To my green land: estranged and wild at heart
He too had crossed the brooks, essayed to pick
That yellow vetch with which the plains are thick;
And being put to it (as I had been)
To smuggle back some witness of the scene,
Had knotted up his cambric handkerchief
With common music, rippling, flat and brief;
Then, home again, had sighed above the score
“Ay, a remembrancer, but nothing more.”

Marianne Stokes 'A Young Girl Picking Flowers'














Robert Graves’ poem about of the musical ‘transport’ he experienced as a child listening to Mozart  is appositely allusive  to the the ‘trance’ in which genuine poems take their form. The swirling galactic  indeterminate fields of dust and gas where stars are born, and the shadowy ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ (‘La Noche Oscura’) described by St. John of the Cross,  also relate to to this rich and fertile state and place  – this dream-like ground of transcendent mystery and creativity – this mystical reality from which it is so difficult to retrieve and return scarcely any but a shredded scrap back to our ordinary realm: A scrap hastily torn from a vision entire which shimmers and dissolves and disappears much as the world of a dream does upon awakening.

The test of a true poem is that it is able to restore in great part to the reader that other realm which stubbornly refuses to accompany us back into our dreamless world – or only does so in the tantalising shadowy fragments of ‘through a glass darkly’. The true poem accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of paradoxically forming with words an evanescent world in which what is the most real effortlessly unfolds without them.

Mozart Aged Eight, Holding a Bird's Nest.




The Corner Knot

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A Bracelet

A Dream of Francess Speedwell

A Lost Jewell

Bank Account

Dance Of Words

Full Moon

Galatea and Pygmalion

In Her Praise

Love In Barrenness

Never such Love


Whole Love

Pure Death

Return of the Goddess

Sick Love

The Chink

The Dangerous Gift

The Door

The Foreboding

The Metaphor

To Be Called A Bear

To Beguile and Betray

Whole Love

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