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Sappho and Her Friends: The Poetry Thread


Swithin
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Knoxville: Summer of 1915

 

A beautiful poem by James Agee set to glorious music by Samuel Barber, sung by Eileen Farrell, conducted by Bernard Herrmann and the CBS Symphony Orchestra. 

 

 

 

Knoxville: Summer of 1915

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street

and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees,
of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by.

A horse, drawing a buggy,
breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt:
a loud auto: a quiet auto:
people in pairs, not in a hurry,
scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually,
the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk,
the image upon them of lovers and horsement, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising into iron moan; stopping;
belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again

its iron increasing moan
and swimming its gold windows and straw seats
on past and past and past,
the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it
like a small malignant spirit
set to dog its tracks;
the iron whine rises on rising speed;
still risen, faints; halts;
the faint stinging bell;
rises again, still fainter;
fainting, lifting lifts,
faints foregone;
forgotten.
Now is the night one blue dew;
my father has drained,
he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns,
a frailing of fire who breathes.
Parents on porches:
rock and rock.
From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.

The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass
of the backyard
my father and mother have spread quilts
We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.
They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet,
of nothing in particular,
of nothing at all.
The stars are wide and alive,
they all seem like a smile
of great sweetness,
and they seem very near.
All my people are larger bodies than mine,
with voices gentle and meaningless
like the voices of sleeping birds.
One is an artist, he is living at home.
One is a musician, she is living at home.
One is my mother who is good to me.
One is my father who is good to me.
By some chance, here they are,
all on this earth;
and who shall ever tell the sorrow
of being on this earth, lying, on quilts,
on the grass,
in a summer evening,
among the sounds of the night.
May God bless my people,
my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father,
oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble;
and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little
I am taken in
and put to bed.
Sleep, soft smiling,
draws me unto her;
and those receive me,
who quietly treat me,
as one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
but will not, oh, will not,
not now, not ever;
but will not ever tell me who I am.

---James Agee 

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I'll surely listen to this when I have more time. I love this piece. I grew up with Eleanor Steber singing this and it's believed that Barber composed this for her though this may be in dispute.

 

Swithin, you may or not know that the lyrics are not from a poem, although I like the scansion as you present it, and it would certainly making a convincing poem. It was actually taken from a page of prose (contiguous). Barber was perceptive to notice in this in the first place (I'm sure he was not specifically hunting for something he could put in song, he was probably just reading) and luckily for us had the ingenuity to realize that he could do something with it.

 

Great post.

 

https://www.flashlyrics.com/lyrics/samuel-barber/knoxville-summer-of-1915-35

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I'll surely listen to this when I have more time. I love this piece. I grew up with Eleanor Steber singing this and it's believed that Barber composed this for her though this may be in dispute.

 

Swithin, you may or not know that the lyrics are not from a poem, although I like the scansion as you present it, and it would certainly making a convincing poem. It was actually taken from a page of prose (contiguous). Barber was perceptive to notice in this in the first place (I'm sure he was not specifically hunting for something he could put in song, he was probably just reading) and luckily for us had the ingenuity to realize that he could do something with it.

 

Great post.

 

Yes -- I knew that about the text, but I think it has sort of achieved poetic status, loosely stated. (I've seen it referred to as a "prose poem.") Barber didn't use all of the piece -- I just lifted a convenient example for this thread.

 

I was not familiar with this piece until recently. I was visiting a friend, who had been in the music business. He said he thought the piece had been commissioned by Steber. My friend has a Barber multi-CD set which includes the Farrell, Steber, and Price recordings. He played the Farrell for me, which is his favorite, but said that you can understand the words a bit better with the Steber. He liked the Price well enough, but least of the three.

 

I'm so glad to have been introduced to this piece. I haven't read much of Agee's work, apart from film criticism, but now want to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

 

"Knoxville: Summer 1915" reminds me a little of another favorite piece of music: "Ain't It a Pretty Night," from Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah, sung by Phyllis Curtin

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The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 
 
 

 

 
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Oh, oh, oh, I hate to cover up this beautiful poem so soon. I was familiar with a couple of the most famous verses but I don't think I ever read the entire poem before now and I (shamefully perhaps) didn't even know who wrote it.

 

Absolutely beautiful.

 

Emma Lazarus, I salute you !!

 

There is a lovely drawing of her on her wiki page.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Lazarus

 

Thanks, Swithin, I needed to see this.

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When the British Nazi girl Unity Mitford returned to England from Germany, at the start of World War II, Noel Coward wrote this poem:

 

Notes on Our New National Heroine

 

Unity, Unity – daughter of sorrow,

Creature of tragedy, child of distress,

Read her sad tale in the Mirror tomorrow,

Learn of her life in the Daily Express.

 

Think how she publicly postured and pandered,

Screeching her views on the Nazi regime,

Weep with her now in the News and the Standard,

Everything’s over, the end of a dream.

 

Sigh for this amateur social Egeria,

Think how she suffered and suffered in vain,

Caught in the toils of neurotic hysteria,

Ne’er to take tea with her Fuhrer again.

 

No more photography – no more publicity,

No more defiance and devil may care.

Back to old England and bleak domesticity,

Nothing but decency, truth and despair.

 

No concentration camps – nothing exciting here,

Nothing sadistic, no national slaves,

Only the freedom for which we are fighting here,

Only Britannia still ruling the waves.

 

Unity – Unity – daughter of sorrow,

Sad, disillusioned and pampered and rich,

How can she hope for a happy tomorrow?

What is there left for this tiresome ****?

Edited by TCMModerator1
Edited For Language
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  • 1 year later...

In honor of the great new film Peterloo, which I mentioned in the "I Just Watched" thread, here is Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem about the Peterloo Massacre:

The Mask of Anarchy

I

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

II

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

III

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

IV

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

V

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

VI

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

VII

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

VIII

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

IX

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -
'I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!'

X

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,

XI

And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

XII

And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.

XIII

O'er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.

XIV

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.

XV

For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
'Thou art God, and Law, and King.

XVI

'We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.'

XVII

Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering - 'Thou art Law and God.' -

XVIII

Then all cried with one accord,
'Thou art King, and God and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!'

XIX

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

XX

For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

XXI

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament

XXII

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:

XXIII

'My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

XXIV

‘He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me -
Misery, oh, Misery!'

XXV

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses' feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

XXVI

When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:

XXVII

Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky

XXVIII

It grew - a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper's scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.

XXIX

On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning's, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.

XXX

With step as soft as wind it passed,
O'er the heads of men - so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked, - but all was empty air.

XXXI

As flowers beneath May's footstep waken,
As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.

XXXII

And the prostrate multitude
Looked - and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:

XXXIII

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.

XXXIV

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

XXXV

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother's throe

XXXVI

Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood, -
As if her heart had cried aloud:

XXXVII

'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

XXXVIII

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.’

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Sea Poppies

BY H. D.
Amber husk 
fluted with gold, 
fruit on the sand 
marked with a rich grain, 
 
treasure 
spilled near the shrub-pines 
to bleach on the boulders: 
 
your stalk has caught root 
among wet pebbles 
and drift flung by the sea 
and grated shells 
and split conch-shells. 
 
Beautiful, wide-spread, 
fire upon leaf, 
what meadow yields 
so fragrant a leaf 
as your bright leaf?
 
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  • 2 weeks later...

February

By Thomas Chatterton

300px-Chatterton.jpg

Begin, my muse, the imitative lay, 
Aonian doxies sound the thrumming string; 
Attempt no number of the plaintive Gay, 
Let me like midnight cats, or Collins sing. 
If in the trammels of the doleful line 
The bounding hail, or drilling rain descend; 
Come, brooding Melancholy, pow'r divine, 
And ev'ry unform'd mass of words amend. 

Now the rough goat withdraws his curling horns, 
And the cold wat'rer twirls his circling mop: 
Swift sudden anguish darts thro' alt'ring corns, 
And the spruce mercer trembles in his shop. 

Now infant authors, madd'ning for renown, 
Extend the plume, and him about the stage, 
Procure a benefit, amuse the town, 
And proudly glitter in a title page. 

Now, wrapt in ninefold fur, his squeamish grace 
Defies the fury of the howling storm; 
And whilst the tempest whistles round his face, 
Exults to find his mantled carcase warm. 

Now rumbling coaches furious drive along, 
Full of the majesty of city dames, 
Whose jewels sparkling in the gaudy throng, 
Raise strange emotions and invidious flames. 

Now Merit, happy in the calm of place, 
To mortals as a highlander appears, 
And conscious of the excellence of lace, 
With spreading frogs and gleaming spangles glares. 

Whilst Envy, on a tripod seated nigh, 
In form a shoe-boy, daubs the valu'd fruit, 
And darting lightnings from his vengeful eye, 
Raves about Wilkes, and politics, and Bute. 

Now Barry, taller than a grenadier, 
Dwindles into a stripling of eighteen; 
Or sabled in Othello breaks the ear, 
Exerts his voice, and totters to the scene. 

Now Foote, a looking-glass for all mankind, 
Applies his wax to personal defects; 
But leaves untouch'd the image of the mind, 
His art no mental quality reflects. 

Now Drury's potent kind extorts applause, 
And pit, box, gallery, echo, "how divine!" 
Whilst vers'd in all the drama's mystic laws, 
His graceful action saves the wooden line. 

Now-- but what further can the muses sing? 
Now dropping particles of water fall; 
Now vapours riding on the north wind's wing, 
With transitory darkness shadow all. 

Alas! how joyless the descriptive theme, 
When sorrow on the writer's quiet preys 
And like a mouse in Cheshire cheese supreme, 
Devours the substance of the less'ning bays. 

Come, February, lend thy darkest sky. 
There teach the winter'd muse with clouds to soar; 
Come, February, lift the number high; 
Let the sharp strain like wind thro' alleys roar. 

Ye channels, wand'ring thro' the spacious street, 
In hollow murmurs roll the dirt along, 
With inundations wet the sabled feet, 
Whilst gouts responsive, join th'elegiac song. 

Ye damsels fair, whose silver voices shrill, 
Sound thro' meand'ring folds of Echo's horn; 
Let the sweet cry of liberty be still, 
No more let smoking cakes awake the morn. 

O, Winter! Put away the snowy pride; 
O, Spring! Neglect the cowslip and the bell; 
O, Summer! Throw thy pears and plums aside; 
O, Autumn! Bid the grape with poison swell. 

The pension'd muse of Johnson is no more! 
Drown'd in a butt of wine his genius lies; 
Earth! Ocean! Heav'n! The wond'rous loss deplore, 
The dregs of nature with her glory dies. 

What iron Stoic can suppress the tear; 
What sour reviewer read with vacant eye! 
What bard but decks his literary bier! 
Alas! I cannot sing-- I howl-- I cry-- 

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1 hour ago, Swithin said:

February

By Thomas Chatterton

300px-Chatterton.jpg

Begin, my muse, the imitative lay, 
Aonian doxies sound the thrumming string; 
Attempt no number of the plaintive Gay, 
Let me like midnight cats, or Collins sing. 
If in the trammels of the doleful line 
The bounding hail, or drilling rain descend; 
Come, brooding Melancholy, pow'r divine, 
And ev'ry unform'd mass of words amend. 

Now the rough goat withdraws his curling horns, 
And the cold wat'rer twirls his circling mop: 
Swift sudden anguish darts thro' alt'ring corns, 
And the spruce mercer trembles in his shop. 

Now infant authors, madd'ning for renown, 
Extend the plume, and him about the stage, 
Procure a benefit, amuse the town, 
And proudly glitter in a title page. 

Now, wrapt in ninefold fur, his squeamish grace 
Defies the fury of the howling storm; 
And whilst the tempest whistles round his face, 
Exults to find his mantled carcase warm. 

Now rumbling coaches furious drive along, 
Full of the majesty of city dames, 
Whose jewels sparkling in the gaudy throng, 
Raise strange emotions and invidious flames. 

Now Merit, happy in the calm of place, 
To mortals as a highlander appears, 
And conscious of the excellence of lace, 
With spreading frogs and gleaming spangles glares. 

Whilst Envy, on a tripod seated nigh, 
In form a shoe-boy, daubs the valu'd fruit, 
And darting lightnings from his vengeful eye, 
Raves about Wilkes, and politics, and Bute. 

Now Barry, taller than a grenadier, 
Dwindles into a stripling of eighteen; 
Or sabled in Othello breaks the ear, 
Exerts his voice, and totters to the scene. 

Now Foote, a looking-glass for all mankind, 
Applies his wax to personal defects; 
But leaves untouch'd the image of the mind, 
His art no mental quality reflects. 

Now Drury's potent kind extorts applause, 
And pit, box, gallery, echo, "how divine!" 
Whilst vers'd in all the drama's mystic laws, 
His graceful action saves the wooden line. 

Now-- but what further can the muses sing? 
Now dropping particles of water fall; 
Now vapours riding on the north wind's wing, 
With transitory darkness shadow all. 

Alas! how joyless the descriptive theme, 
When sorrow on the writer's quiet preys 
And like a mouse in Cheshire cheese supreme, 
Devours the substance of the less'ning bays. 

Come, February, lend thy darkest sky. 
There teach the winter'd muse with clouds to soar; 
Come, February, lift the number high; 
Let the sharp strain like wind thro' alleys roar. 

Ye channels, wand'ring thro' the spacious street, 
In hollow murmurs roll the dirt along, 
With inundations wet the sabled feet, 
Whilst gouts responsive, join th'elegiac song. 

Ye damsels fair, whose silver voices shrill, 
Sound thro' meand'ring folds of Echo's horn; 
Let the sweet cry of liberty be still, 
No more let smoking cakes awake the morn. 

O, Winter! Put away the snowy pride; 
O, Spring! Neglect the cowslip and the bell; 
O, Summer! Throw thy pears and plums aside; 
O, Autumn! Bid the grape with poison swell. 

The pension'd muse of Johnson is no more! 
Drown'd in a butt of wine his genius lies; 
Earth! Ocean! Heav'n! The wond'rous loss deplore, 
The dregs of nature with her glory dies. 

What iron Stoic can suppress the tear; 
What sour reviewer read with vacant eye! 
What bard but decks his literary bier! 
Alas! I cannot sing-- I howl-- I cry-- 

Swith-- such beautiful, torturing poetry

 I did my honor thesis in French literature over Alfred de  Vigny's play "Chatterton".  The French poet fell in love with an actress and he wrote this play especially for her.

 But he had been intrigued by Chatterton for years,  like other Romantic Poets,  and had already written about him.

 

In French literature there is the 18th century poet Andre' Chenier who has a similar following in terms of his work and short life for French Romantic Poets.

I know that you're familiar with him from the Opera about him.

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4 hours ago, Princess of Tap said:

Swith-- such beautiful, torturing poetry

 I did my honor thesis in French literature over Alfred de  Vigny's play "Chatterton".  The French poet fell in love with an actress and he wrote this play especially for her.

 But he had been intrigued by Chatterton for years,  like other Romantic Poets,  and had already written about him.

In French literature there is the 18th century poet Andre' Chenier who has a similar following in terms of his work and short life for French Romantic Poets.

I know that you're familiar with him from the Opera about him.

I love novels that are set in early New York State, and I've been fascinated by Chatterton since I read James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer as a boy. Each chapter of that novel begins with an excerpt from a poem. Chapter XV begins with an excerpt from The Bristowe Tragedy, a poem that I discovered was a lament for the death of a Lancastrian during the Wars of the Roses. Chatterton wrote the poem in the style of an earlier period. The "geode and lawfulle kynge" referred to is Henry VI.

“As long as Edwarde rules thys lande,
    Ne quiet you wylle ye know;
    Your sonnes and husbandes shall be slayne,
    And brookes with bloode shall 'flowe.'

    “You leave youre geode and lawfulle kynge,
    Whenne ynne adversity;
    Like me, untoe the true cause stycke,
    And for the true cause dye.”

 -- Chatterton.

Years later, I saw the painting "The Death of Chatterton" by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis, in the Tate Gallery. Yes, I know the opera Andrea Chenier. Chenier is also a minor character in Abel Gance's film Napoleon (1927).

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Here's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, as an homage to the screening of Querelle on TCM early this morning.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde, 1854 - 1900

I

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
  For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
  When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
  And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
  In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
  And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
  With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
  Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
  A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
  "That fellow’s got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
  Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
  Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
  My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
  Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
  With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
  And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
  Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
  Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
  On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
  Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
  Into an empty place

He does not sit with silent men
  Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
  And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
  The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
  Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
  The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
  With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
  To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
  Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
  Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
  That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves
  Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
  That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
  The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the terror of his soul
  Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
  Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
  Through a little roof of glass;
He does not pray with lips of clay
  For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
  The kiss of Caiaphas.


II

Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,
  In a suit of shabby grey:
His cricket cap was on his head,
  And his step seemed light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
  Its raveled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
  Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
  In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
  And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
  Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
  Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
  As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
  Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
  A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
  The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
  With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
  That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
  With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
  Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
  For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
  Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer’s collar take
  His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
  When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
  Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
  To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
  We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
  Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
  His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
  Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
  In the black dock’s dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
  In God’s sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
  We had crossed each other’s way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
  We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
  But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
  Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
  And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
  Had caught us in its snare.


III

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
  And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
  Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
  For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
  His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
  And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
  Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
  The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
  A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called
  And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
  And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
  No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
  The hangman’s hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing
  No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher’s doom
  Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
  And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
  To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
  Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
  Could help a brother’s soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring
  We trod the Fool’s Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
  The Devil’s Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
  Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
  We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
  And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
  Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
  That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
  We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
  Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
  To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
  Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
  On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
  Went shuffling through the gloom
And each man trembled as he crept
  Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
  Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
  Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
  White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
  In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watcher watched him as he slept,
  And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
  With a hangman close at hand?

But there is no sleep when men must weep
  Who never yet have wept:
So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—
  That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
  Another’s terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
  To feel another’s guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
  Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
  For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
  Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
  Grey figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
  Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
  Mad mourners of a corpse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
  The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
  Was the savior of Remorse.

The **** crew, the red **** crew,
  But never came the day:
And crooked shape of Terror crouched,
  In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
  Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
  Like travelers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
  Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
  The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
  Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
  They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
  Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
  They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
  As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and loud they sang,
  For they sang to wake the dead.

“Oho!” they cried, “The world is wide,
  But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
  Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
  In the secret House of Shame.”

No things of air these antics were
  That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
  And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
  Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
  Some wheeled in smirking pairs:
With the mincing step of demirep
  Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
  Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
  But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
  Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
  Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
  The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
  We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
  To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
  Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
  That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
  God’s dreadful dawn was red.

At six o’clock we cleaned our cells,
  At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
  The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
  Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
  Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
  Are all the gallows’ need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
  To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
  Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
  Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
  And what was dead was Hope.

For Man’s grim Justice goes its way,
  And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
  The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
  Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
  That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
  For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
  Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
  Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man’s heart beat thick and quick
  Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
  Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
  Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
  From a leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
  In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
  Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare
  Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
  That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
  None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
  More deaths than one must die.


IV

There is no chapel on the day
  On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
  Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
  Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
  And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
  Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
  Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God’s sweet air we went,
  But not in wonted way,
For this man’s face was white with fear,
  And that man’s face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
  In happy freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
  Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
  They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived
  Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
  Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
  And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood
  And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
  With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
  The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
  And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
  And through each hollow mind
The memory of dreadful things
  Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
  And terror crept behind.

The Warders strutted up and down,
  And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were **** and span,
  And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
  By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,
  There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
  By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
  That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
  Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
  Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
  Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
  Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
  And the soft flesh by the day,
It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
  But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
  Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
  Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
  With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer’s heart would taint
  Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God’s kindly earth
  Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
  The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
  Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
  Christ brings his will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
  Bloomed in the great Pope’s sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
  May bloom in prison air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
  Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
  A common man’s despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
  Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
  By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
  That God’s Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
  Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit man not walk by night
  That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may not weep that lies
  In such unholy ground,

He is at peace—this wretched man—
  At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
  Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
  Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
  They did not even toll
A reguiem that might have brought
  Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
  And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
  And gave him to the flies;
They mocked the swollen purple throat
  And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
  In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
  By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
  That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
  Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
  To Life’s appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
  Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
  And outcasts always mourn.


V

I know not whether Laws be right,
  Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
  Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
  A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
  With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
  If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
  How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
  And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
  For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
  Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
  That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
  And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
  And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
  Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
  Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
  In Humanity’s machine.

The brackish water that we drink
  Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
  Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
  Wild-eyed and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
  Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
  For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
  Becomes one’s heart by night.

With midnight always in one’s heart,
  And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
  Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
  Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
  To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
  Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
  With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
  Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
  And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
  And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
  In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
  Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
  With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
  And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
  And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
  May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
  And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
  The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
  The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
  His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
  Became Christ’s snow-white seal.


VI

In Reading gaol by Reading town
  There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
  Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
  And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
  In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
  Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
  And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
  By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!
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As I Walked Out One Evening

W.H. Auden

 

 

As I walked out one evening, 
Walking down Bristol Street, 
The crowds upon the pavement 
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river 
I heard a lover sing 
Under an arch of the railway: 
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you 
Till China and Africa meet, 
And the river jumps over the mountain 
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean 
Is folded and hung up to dry 
And the seven stars go squawking 
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits, 
For in my arms I hold 
The Flower of the Ages, 
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city 
Began to whirr and chime: 
‘O let not Time deceive you, 
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare 
Where Justice naked is, 
Time watches from the shadow 
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry 
Vaguely life leaks away, 
And Time will have his fancy 
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley 
Drifts the appalling snow; 
Time breaks the threaded dances 
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water, 
Plunge them in up to the wrist; 
Stare, stare in the basin 
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard, 
The desert sighs in the bed, 
And the crack in the tea-cup opens 
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes 
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack, 
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, 
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror? 
O look in your distress: 
Life remains a blessing 
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window 
As the tears scald and start; 
You shall love your crooked neighbour 
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening, 
The lovers they were gone; 
The clocks had ceased their chiming, 
And the deep river ran on.

 

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  • 2 months later...
  • 5 months later...

A Thunderstorm In Town

 

She wore a 'terra-cotta' dress,

And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,

Within the hansom's dry recess,

Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless

We sat on, snug and warm.

 

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,

And the glass that had screened our forms before

Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:

I should have kissed her if the rain

Had lasted a minute more.

///

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

...

/////

 

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