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The 20th Century in Poetry

The 20th Century in Poetry

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The 20th Century in Poetry

4.5/5 (3 évaluations)
1,141 pages
10 heures
Aug 6, 2013


A historical timeline of more than four hundred 20th-century poems. “[A] prodigious harvest . . . an entire universe of poetry lives here” (Booklist, starred review).
 This groundbreaking anthology presents in chronological order over four hundred poems written during the twentieth century. The authors, both published poets themselves, give an overview of each period of history, while notes to the poems place each one in its historical context and trace the century’s poetic development. Concise biographies for each poet complete the anthology. By organizing the poems in chronological order, readers will see poets in a new light. Here A. E. Houseman, for example, rubs shoulders with T. S. Eliot, showing that traditional forms can hold their own against the modernist orthodoxy. All the major events of the twentieth century are reflected in the choice of poems within these pages. Including poems by Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, G. K. Chesterton, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, W. H. Auden, e. e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Kingsley Amis, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, John Updike, Robert Penn Warren, among a host of others, this richly rewarding collection captures the history of the twentieth century within one monumental volume.  
Aug 6, 2013

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Meilleures citations

  • What does it matter to me, if they can writeA description of a dog, or if they can’t?What is the point? To us both, it is all my aunt!And yet I’m supposed to care, with all my might.  I do not, and will not; they won’t and they don’t; and that’s all!

  • Till, finding lovers, but no friend,Nor any place to rest or hide,She grew despairing at the end,Slipped softly down a well and died.

  • Voices of jackals callingAnd, loud in the hush between,A morsel of dry earth fallingFrom the flanks of the scarred ravine.

  • His happy good-night airSome blessed Hope, whereof he knewAnd I was unaware.

  • Owen, a Rosenberg or a Sassoon to write.

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The 20th Century in Poetry - Pegasus Books



THIS BOOK gathers over four hundred poems written in many parts of the English-speaking world in the twentieth century. They are arranged chronologically, as the poems appeared, rather than in bundles dictated by the birth dates of the poets. In many cases the poems appear under the date of first volume publication, or in some cases under the date of composition, if known (Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is one such). In other cases it is the event to which the poem relates that has determined the place it occupies in this book. In the relatively short opening section, for instance, there are already nine examples of this. Gibson’s poem on the mystery of Flannan Isle was not written till 1912; Murray’s on the hanging of Jimmy Governor, and Noël Coward’s on the perceived watershed of 1901, were written long after the events, as was Linda Bierds’ poem on the death of Tolstoy; so too were Stewart’s meditation on Rutherford’s work on the atom (dated here to the year in which the physicist developed the model of the atom that is known by his name), Tate’s account of a lynching, and Pratt’s magisterial poem on the loss of the Titanic, written in the mid-Thirties. Our last selections for this opening group of poems, which takes us to the outbreak of the First World War — Hill’s lines on the armies of France ‘reeling towards Verdun’, and Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’, the very title of which recalls a lapidary inscription on a memorial — underscore the historically-minded inclusion of the past in the present. That sense of the long shadows events cast across after-years is an especially important strand in the fabric of this book. Our aim has been to allow the poems to tell the stories of the century, both public and private, that the poets wanted to tell, whether at the time or after the event.

The poems have been chosen because the editors believe they are richly rewarding, in the ways that worthwhile, living poems are richly rewarding, whatever their form or style, whatever the time in which they were written or the culture in which they originated. Some of the poems have long been familiar, and critics and readers have agreed on their value; others are still in the process of acquiring that weight of consent; others are well known in their own countries but have too little currency elsewhere; still others, we hope, will come as surprising discoveries or re-discoveries. Poems here by a Frost or Hardy, Eliot or Yeats, Auden or Lowell, are of the first kind; poems by a Moore or Bishop, Heaney or Mahon, Porter or Gray of the second; poems by virtually all the poets from New Zealand, Canada, India and Anglophone Africa are of the third kind, at least from the perspective of the UK and the US; and, as for the surprises, the less we say here, the better they will be.

These first opening remarks are couched in what we hope are uncontroversial terms. Our aim is to offer pleasures, both simple and complex, rather than to brew up a storm in poetry’s tea-cup. But of course we recognise that all of the presuppositions underlying them might spark disagreement. Questions of value and consent, for example, have become steadily more contentious in recent decades, since they imply both the passing of critical judgement and the formation of a ‘canon’. So it’s right that we say a few words about our assumptions.

While it’s not for us to speculate whether this book will play a part in the creation or reinforcement of a ‘canon’, it is in the nature of anthologies that they’re read in the context of this process, and it is disingenuous of anthologists to pretend otherwise. But the ‘canon’ as imagined here is broad and generous in spirit. This book stands for a new understanding of the ‘canon’, an understanding that is all about co-presence. It recognises that different poetries in English existed side by side in the twentieth century, some of them ‘old’ and some of them ‘new’, drawing partly on common sources in the poetries of past centuries but also on the distinctive characters, traditions and agendas of the places in which poetry was now being written in English. In a world that has moved beyond the old-style empires, there are no longer any ‘centres’ in the sense in which London or New York were once thought to be the ‘centres’ of the English-speaking world. The centre is wherever the language is used with vitality, in poetry that comes from the heart of lived experience, pitched thought, vigorous engagement with the public and private life of the age.

This book has been several years in the making, and throughout we have devoted our attention to these fundamental questions: What is the poem setting out to do? and How well has it done it? Other criteria — of ideology, race, gender, membership of this or that aesthetic movement — were secondary at best, and of course we were guided by James Fenton’s basic rule: ‘when a line seems to be meaningless or untrue, it is not a bad idea to entertain the possibility that it is indeed meaningless or untrue’. We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of poetry that was fully achieved, poetry that didn’t require special pleading, poetry that respected the primacy of communication (since we are all creatures of language), poetry that had the courage of its convictions, poetry that would honour any ‘canon’ it finally ended up in, once the organic process of canon formation — by which generations of readers vote with their considered preferences — has run its course. We are convinced that many of the poems in this book will endure. What’s more, our chronological arrangement not only comes up with some thought-provoking juxtapositions (the selections for 1958 or 1973 speak volumes) but also poses a continuous challenge to national self-preoccupation: British readers who haven’t come across Yusef Komunyakaa or Yvette Christiansë, Americans who haven’t read Judith Wright or R. A. K. Mason, Australians who haven’t encountered Don Coles or Elizabeth Spires, can prepare for a discovery. Our regret, inevitably, is for the excellent poems and poets we were still unable to include.

* *

It is a truism that poetry has undergone profound change since 1900. Early in the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot considered it ‘likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult’. Late in the century, Geoffrey Hill told an interviewer: ‘Poetry should, ideally, turn towards the people, but, the world being what it is, there’s an ignorant expectation that one must succumb to a lowest common denominator of demand.’ The two remarks map a key problem for modern poetry. The complexity Eliot experienced in a world that was seeing the collapse of old certainties could not be accounted for in simple terms, and the forms taken by his responses in poetry were complex. In Hill, in many ways Eliot’s poetic kinsman, we see the converse of Eliot’s dilemma: glad to acknowledge the man in the street as the arbiter in principle, Hill is anxious in practice not to sell poetry short by dumbing down. The gap that has seemingly widened between poets and readers over the past hundred years, and the distrust that has arguably weakened the age-old contract, could easily be discussed in terms derived from their respective positions.

But that would be a partial account. From Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the jazz clubs of the Fifties and Robert Lowell on the Pentagon march to the extraordinary popularity enjoyed by writers as different as Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Wendy Cope or Virginia Hamilton Adair, there has been no shortage of reminders that poetry possessed of intelligence and address, whether high or light, priestly or irreverent, can speak to a wide audience. In fact, the true story of poetry in English in the twentieth century is not told by tracing the line of communicative and conceptual intractability, a line which fetches up in the dead end of poetry fired by linguistic philosophy and designed to appeal to a coterie of initiates. It is a story of success in finding ways of dealing with the truly complex experience of modern life in language that is resonant yet down-to-earth. Berryman’s Dream Songs, Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’, Pinsky’s ‘Shirt’, Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’, Mason’s ‘Lugete o veneres’, Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wright’s ‘At Cooloolah’, Hardy’s ‘At Castle Boterel’, have nothing in common — nothing, that is, but the most important thing of all, their determination to grasp in its fullness the experience or thought that they wish to tell of, and, having grasped it, to put what they have understood into the most arresting and abiding of words and forms. Many poems work to a low common denominator, faking intimacy, pumping up bogus moments of epiphany, or addressing the reader as if from an open microphone or an election poster. Many others work to an abstrusely high agenda, perhaps perceiving the need for an aesthetic corrective but mistaking the extent to which the common reader is willing or able to share the preoccupations of specialists. The poems we as editors believe have the potential to keep on winning readers are those that were written in the understanding that the common reader (the species still exists, though it may be endangered) possesses intelligence, sensitivity, experience of life and of literature, a familiarity with the past, and an openness to the new.

The superabundance of debates in twentieth-century poetics tells us a great deal about the self-perpetuating difficulties the art has got itself into, and the insecurities poets and critics now seem so deeply entrenched in. It is hard to think of any previous period that saw so many struggles for position, so many movements and avant-gardes and wars for influence, so much contemptuous or cantankerous dismissal of other writers by those with a line to push. And the watchwords of one battle have often been handed down, stripped of context and meaning, to be parroted by later combatants. ‘Go in fear of abstractions,’ warned Ezra Pound in the Imagist heyday, when it mattered to sweep away some of the lazier habits of early twentieth-century poets, and to this day, in poetry workshops the length and breadth of the English-speaking world, a ban on abstraction is enforced by those who are reluctant to consider that abstract language is at the heart of much of the century’s finest poetry — one need only think of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Another example: in Canto LXXXI, written in his Pisan detention in 1945, Pound reflected: ‘to break the pentameter, that was the first heave’. Generations of critics have sagely nodded, agreeing that the pentameter was mercifully broken and that all manner of thing has been well in poetry since we swept the pieces into the dust-pan. But Glyn Maxwell’s riposte is strong: ‘The most positive poetic achievement of the twentieth century was not the breaking of the pentameter to serve contemporary discomfort, but the remastering of it to serve contemporary breath.’ His example is striking: ‘The true revolutionary is Frost, whose lines most closely approximate the meeting of breath and thought, and whose silences are beyond anyone’s in kind and depth.’ In our own book, we might point to the final line of the first of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets — ‘His silent laugh still shakes the hills at dawn’ — as an instance of a perfect and beautiful iambic pentameter implanted in a free verse context, making a quiet, uninsistent appeal to the reader’s inner ear. Baxter had spent many years writing syllabics and free verse, but he had not forgotten that centuries of great poetry in English had hard-wired the pentameter’s rhythm into the collective rhythmic subconscious of the language. That wonderful line radiates to enhance the free verse around it with a subtly energised music. Bishop shows the same deep awareness when she allows an occasional pentameter into ‘At the Fishhouses’. The poem is of course written in a relaxed free verse parlando, but a little voice in our ear whispers ‘blank verse’ when we first see it on the page, and Bishop’s metrical lines are gracefully allowed into the poem in recognition that the free and the metrical can flourish in the same hedgerow.

What does this mean? It means that the benefits of the century’s upheavals in poetics have been gladly adopted by the poets, but they haven’t seen the need to throw out everything that the past had given them. Thoughtful poets have understood the century’s correctives — the greater emphasis on free forms, the speaking voice, and breath, the heightened attention to things rather than to ideas about things — as an enrichment of the means available to them. We believe our anthology demonstrates that they have reaped the harvest of the upheavals not in a spirit of either … or but in a spirit of not only … but also. And to those many, poets and critics, who have imagined it was possible or desirable to lay down the law, the poets have always made swift reply. When ink was being spilt on the rules imagined to govern free verse, D. H. Lawrence baldly observed: ‘It is no use inventing fancy laws for free verse, no use drawing a melodic line which all the feet must toe. Free verse toes no melodic line, no matter what drill-sergeant.’ The aesthetic debate on the nature of beauty, ongoing even now, was brushed aside in the Forties by Marianne Moore, in her poem ‘In Distrust of Merits’, when she briskly declared: ‘Beauty is everlasting’. And when Bill Manhire in an interview approves of ‘poets who produced work that sounded tidy and symmetrical on the page — yet inside the apparent tidiness all sorts of imaginative and emotional leaps were taking place’ (his example is fellow New Zealander R. A. K. Mason), it is hard not to think of Sylvia Plath’s long tussle with terza rima, easily followed through the pages of her Collected Poems, and the fruit that that formal engagement bore in the radical freedom of ‘Lady Lazarus’. The one rule in poetry is that there are no rules. In the great vineyard, many kinds of labourer may go about their work.

We believe that the poems are what matters, not secondary comment on the poems, so the notes we have provided are light, and aim only to remove difficulties or to enhance the reading experience; and we’ve arranged the contents in ‘chapters’ that follow cut-off points given by history (1914, 1945, 1989), each chapter prefaced with a few user-friendly pointers. In arranging the poems in this book chronologically, we have found that a simple, familiar truth about poetry re-asserted itself. It is this: that the art finds its subjects wherever it wants. Poetry has always been public by nature, confronting the great political and military turning-points and traumas that station the collective experience of humanity, and the high achievement of poetry that tells of war is a signal accomplishment of the twentieth century. (It can be no coincidence that Homer’s Iliad throws so dark a shadow over poetry since 1900.) Writing here by Owen, Gurney, Rosenberg and Sassoon, by Douglas, Jarrell, Manifold and Simpson, and others, speaks directly of the two global wars; poems by Auden, Hamburger, Hecht, Hill, Motion, Jorie Graham and Kit Wright live under the shadow of the genocide, atrocities and camps of the Nazi Reich; poems by Mason, Wilbur, Lowell, Nemerov, Forché, Fenton, White and Komunyakaa address the proxy, ‘sideshow’ wars fought around the world through the decades of the Cold War, while John Forbes observes the Gulf War of 1991 from the perspective most of us now share, that of the television viewer. (We have included an extract from Christopher Logue’s War Music in the conviction, shared by George Steiner and others, that it is not so much a translation of Homer as a poem of twentieth century warfaring, in its own right.) Other strands that can be followed through the book deal with the British Empire and its aftermath, the nature of ‘the West’, questions of race, of national identities, of science, technology, and the environment. Equally, poetry has always been private by nature, and intimate lyrics, poems of love and grief and celebration, are here too. As medical advances enable us to live longer, the poetry of old age can be seen to become more substantial; aspects of ageing are broached in poems by Coles, Tony Harrison, Hugo Williams, Kleinzahler and Gray. The complex experience of living in modern communities, whether large cities or small villages, is examined from various angles in poems by Moore, Smithyman, Kinnell, Gray, Gustafson, Hofmann, Spires and Doty — the motto here, we feel, might be Forster’s ‘only connect’. And a still space is always preserved by the poets — by a Frances Cornford, Frost, Clarke, or R. S. Thomas, say — for those numinous moments in which self is glad to yield to the great other.

* *

WE HAVE received help and support from many people during the compilation of this anthology, and would like to thank all those who contributed so generously to the project. These include Phil Errington of the John Masefield Society, Angus McIntyre of the Salamander/Oasis Trust, Caroline Ardrey, Siân Hughes, Tony Barnstone, librarians at the Bodleian, British and London libraries, and those at our mainstay, the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall. We would like to thank our editor, Carey Smith, for her patience and commitment, and express similar gratitude to Roxanne Benson-Mackey, editorial assistant, and to the rest of the team at Ebury. This anthology would not exist without a generous commission from Felix Dennis in the first place, and we are extremely grateful to him for his unflagging enthusiasm. We also owe a considerable debt to his personal assistant, Caroline Rush, who undertook the gruelling task of clearing the permissions. Finally, we would both like to thank those closest to us for their support and forbearance: Kathrin Hulse and Susan Hitch.





Never such innocence again

RETIRED NOVELIST Thomas Hardy greeted the twentieth century with characteristic pessimism, and indeed there might seem ‘little cause for carolings’ to anyone taking a dispassionate view. Britain was embroiled in an increasingly frustrating war in South Africa, in which its professional army was regularly outwitted and humiliated by the Afrikaaners’ resourceful guerrilla forces, and public impatience was growing at military incompetence and the mounting death toll with its ‘hourly posted sheets of scheduled slaughter’, as Hardy put it in another poem. The Boer War produced a plethora of patriotic verse, notably A. C. Benson’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, to many even now the unofficial national anthem of England. But less strident voices could be heard through the bellicose din, as William Watson gently reminded his readers of uncomfortable parallels in ‘Rome and Another’, and Rudyard Kipling, who controversially canonised the imperialist project as ‘the White man’s burden’, confronted the costs, especially those borne by the empire’s humblest servants.

The war ended in 1902, with might winning, though many remained unconvinced that it was right. The year before, Queen Victoria had died (after a reign of sixty-four years), bringing to an end the age to which she gave her name. The sense of loss was genuine, but as the more than middle-aged Prince of Wales mounted the throne after his marathon wait to succeed, his subjects hoped for a breath of fresh air. The great glacier of Victorian social attitudes had been showing cracks for some years. The Labour Party, struggling into existence, had won its first two seats in the 1900 general election, and, while the Conservatives doggedly held on to age-old privileges, the Liberals fought to introduce the rudiments of a welfare system. Though Thomas Hardy had given up fiction after the outraged response to the emotional and sexual honesty of Jude the Obscure (1895), the 1890s had in fact seen a mounting challenge to stultifying conventions, especially in regard to relations between the sexes. Frances Cornford’s ‘Autumn Morning at Cambridge’ captures the mood of optimism that assumed superiorities and ingrained inequalities could be challenged.

The road to equality for women was of course a long one. Dorothy Sayers, later famous as a crime writer, won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1912, but in spite of achieving a first class result (in 1915) could not yet be awarded a degree at the time, and had to wait. Today it requires a real effort of the imagination to comprehend the brutally repressive reaction to the suffragette movement. Protesters were dragged off to prison, where those who went on hunger strike were subjected to the painful indignities of force-feeding — all to deny women the simple right to vote (ceded almost without a murmur after they had kept the home fires burning, and the munitions factories going, during the First World War).

In Ireland, poetry was in robust shape. The leading figure was William Butler Yeats, who declared in 1909, following the deaths of Swinburne and George Meredith, ‘And now I am king of the cats.’ After years devoted to the heroes of Irish folklore, Yeats was forced into engagement with contemporary events by his involvement with (and unrequited love for) the beautiful and headstrong nationalist, Maude Gonne, whom he mythologised as a modern-day Helen of Troy while disapproving of her revolutionary agenda. Brilliant younger writers included James Joyce and the playwright J. M. Synge, who led the way in challenging the grip of the Roman Catholic Church on all aspects of life. Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World provoked a riot in Dublin, and Joyce opted for exile to escape censorship, but the heat of controversy forged an Irish literature of such quality that it achieved global recognition and influence.

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, poetry was in the doldrums in the opening years of the century. The six Australian colonies had been federated into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, but no burst of poetic energy accompanied the new charge of socio-political life. The poetic achievements of Henry Lawson and A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson belonged chiefly to the 1890s, and in the pre-1914 years the lone figures of Christopher Brennan and Shaw Neilson stand out as writers engaged in the profound endeavour to forge their own voices in a land still imagined to be ‘new’. In the United States of war veteran and hunter Theodore Roosevelt, poetry found no immediate succession either to the line of Walt Whitman (who had died in 1892) or to that of Emily Dickinson (whose posthumously published poems had proved a sensational success in the 1890s), and first Ezra Pound and then T. S. Eliot made their homes on the European side of the Atlantic. For many of the extraordinary events, on a larger or smaller scale, that have captured the imaginations of later generations — from the loss of the Titanic to the racism behind the stories of an aboriginal outlaw hanged for murder in Australia or a black victim lynched in Kentucky — poetry did not as yet have a language or vision. The long shadow cast across the twentieth century by the scientific work of Ernest Rutherford attracted no response from poets at the time, and William Watson’s prophetic sonnet seemingly previsioning the spectre of destruction under which mankind has lived since 1945 was the exception, not the rule.

If the old dispensation was gradually giving way, it did not always seem to know it, not even when the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy died at a railway station, inspiring a wave of mourning that washed across the world and affected many with the sense that an era had ended. Despite individual horrors, the mass enslavements of mass production, and the growing awareness that social and political life was beginning to change, there was still, in the pre-war period, a deep and rich sense of untrammelled space. The train was a fact of life (and for many, a blessed escape from the towns), and the motor car was still the preserve of the tiny minority, and had yet to dominate the countryside. ‘Driving’ in Hardy’s pre-war poems meant being drawn by horse; the open road was still a place where all might wander at will, as it had been throughout human history. Both W. H. Davies, the self-proclaimed Super Tramp, and John Masefield, in very early youth, spent years on the road in America. Shaw Neilson celebrated the peripatetic life of the ‘sundowner’ along Australia’s ‘Tucker Track’, while Ezra Pound tramped the roads of southern France in his quest for a cultural continuum that would fuel a lifetime’s literary labour. G. K. Chesterton, Pound’s opposite in almost every regard, put his trust in the rolling English road, and the rolling English drunkard (and, with his friend and fellow satirist Hilaire Belloc, made many a convivial journey from pub to pub down Sussex lanes). The walkers perhaps overlooked the fearful isolation of rural living. The American Robert Frost might be seen, amongst much else, as the laureate of loneliness, and in poem after poem he focused on slow lives lived in an unrelieved obscurity that was in sharp contrast to the increasingly hectic pace of the lives led by the majority.

So when Philip Larkin, in later times, wrote of the ‘innocence’ of the years before 1914, it was of that opportunity to walk blithely out among the ‘flowering grasses’ that he was thinking, among other things. His poem ‘MCMXIV’ knows of the hierarchy that stretched from kings and queens to servants, but its foregrounding of ‘innocence’ does not mean by that word the self-interested manoeuvres of the great powers, as they positioned themselves for advantage while maintaining the ball-room niceties of diplomacy, nor does it mean the Anglo-German arms race. From the forging of alliances and the drawing-up of war plans to the whipping-up of jingoistic sentiment by the popular press, the pre-1914 years were of course anything but innocent. But Britain had fought its wars as imperial sideshows for so long, in faraway places with faraway names like Afghanistan, Egypt or South Africa, that it imagined it had been at peace, and war, when it came, could seem rather an exciting prospect — an attitude Larkin captures brilliantly in his reference to the lines of young men queuing to volunteer as though waiting to get into a football or cricket match. The eager anticipation was such that many boys lied about their age to get a uniform. Cambridge golden boy Rupert Brooke rose to national prominence with a series of sonnets embracing the conflict, claiming his generation were as ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’, and imagining a patriotic hero’s death for himself in ‘The Soldier’. The terrible unheroic truths about the First World War were left to an Owen, a Rosenberg or a Sassoon to write.


The Darkling Thrush


I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-gray,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

31 December 1900

The Victorians regarded 31 December 1900 as the end of the nineteenth century. To some there seemed little to celebrate as they looked toward the twentieth, with the country fighting a costly imperial war in South Africa. The Boer War ended in 1902.


Flannan Isle


Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle

To keep the lamp alight,

As we steer’d under the lee, we caught

No glimmer through the night!

A passing ship at dawn had brought

The news; and quickly we set sail,

To find out what strange thing might ail

The keepers of the deep-sea light.

The winter day broke blue and bright,

With glancing sun and glancing spray,

As o’er the swell our boat made way,

As gallant as a gull in flight.

But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;

And look’d up at the naked height;

And saw the lighthouse towering white,

With blinded lantern, that all night

Had never shot a spark

Of comfort through the dark,

So ghastly in the cold sunlight

It seem’d, that we were struck the while

With wonder all too dread for words.

And, as into the tiny creek

We stole beneath the hanging crag,

We saw three queer, black, ugly, birds —

Too big, by far, in my belief,

For guillemot or shag —

Like seamen sitting bold upright

Upon a half-tide reef:

But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,

Without a sound, or spurt of white.

And still too mazed to speak,

We landed; and made fast the boat;

And climb’d the track in single file,

Each wishing he was safe afloat,

On any sea, however far,

So it be far from Flannan Isle:

And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,

As though we’d lost all count of time,

And so must climb for evermore.

Yet, all too soon, we reached the door —

The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,

That gaped for us ajar.

As, on the threshold, for a spell,

We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell

Of limewash and of tar,

Familiar as our daily breath,

As though ’twere some strange scent of death:

And so, yet wondering, side by side,

We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:

And each with black foreboding eyed

The door, ere we should fling it wide,

To leave the sunlight for the gloom:

Till, plucking courage up, at last,

Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d

Into the living-room.

Yet, as we crowded through the door,

We only saw a table, spread

For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;

But all untouch’d; and no one there:

As though, when they sat down to eat,

Ere they could even taste,

Alarm had come; and they in haste

Had risen and left the bread and meat:

For on the table-head a chair

Lay tumbled on the floor.

We listen’d; but we only heard

The feeble cheeping of a bird

That starved upon its perch:

And, listening still, without a word,

We set about our hopeless search.

We hunted high, we hunted low,

And soon ransack’d the empty house;

Then o’er the Island, to and fro,

We ranged, to listen and to look

In every cranny, cleft or nook

That might have hid a bird or mouse:

But, though we searched from shore to shore,

We found no sign in any place:

And soon again stood face to face

Before the gaping door:

And stole into the room once more

As frighten’d children steal.

Aye: though we hunted high and low,

And hunted everywhere,

Of the three men’s fate we found no trace

Of any kind in any place,

But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,

And an overtoppled chair.

And, as we listen’d in the gloom

Of that forsaken living-room —

O chill clutch on our breath —

We thought how ill-chance came to all

Who kept the Flannan Light:

And how the rock had been the death

Of many a likely lad:

How six had come to a sudden end

And three had gone stark mad:

And one whom we’d all known as friend

Had leapt from the lantern one still night,

And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:

And long we thought

On the three we sought,

And of what might yet befall.

Like curs a glance has brought to heel,

We listen’d, flinching there:

And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal

And the overtoppled chair.

We seem’d to stand for an endless while,

Though still no word was said,

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,

Who thought on three men dead.

The Flannan Isles are a group of uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr, designed by David Alan Stevenson (cousin of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson), was taken into service in December 1899, and a year later, ten days before Christmas 1900, was the scene of a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, when the three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace (presumably swept into the sea by freak waves). Gibson’s ballad-like narrative poem, written in 1912, is apparently mistaken in suggesting that the men were interrupted at their meal, but is otherwise marvellously (and accurately) evocative of the scene that met those who first investigated the extinction of the light. The story also inspired Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera The Lighthouse (1979).


The Ballad of Jimmy Governor


HM Prison, Darlinghurst, 18 January 1901

You can send for my breakfast now, Governor.

The colt from Black Velvet’s awake

and the ladies all down from the country

are gathered outside for my sake.

Soon be all finished, the running.

No tracks of mine lead out of here.

Today, I take that big step

on the bottom rung of the air

and be in Heaven for dinner.

Might be the first jimbera there.

The Old People don’t go to Heaven,

good thing. My mother might meet

that stockman feller my father

and him cut her dead in the street.

Mother, today I’ll be dancing

your way and his way on numb feet.

But a man’s not a rag to wipe snot on,

I got that much into their heads,

them hard white sunbonnet ladies

that turned up their short lips and said

my wife had a slut’s eye for colour.

I got that into their head

and the cow-cockies’ kids plant up chimneys

they got horse soldiers out with the Law

after Joe and lame Jack and tan Jimmy —

but who learnt us how to make war

on women, old men, babies?

It ain’t all one way any more.

The papers, they call us bushrangers:

That would be our style, I daresay,

bushrangers on foot with our axes.

It sweetens the truth, anyway.

They don’t like us killing their women.

Their women kill us every day.

And the squatters are peeing their moleskins,

that’s more than a calf in the wheat,

it’s Jimmy the fencer, running

along the top rail in the night,

it’s the Breelong mob crossing the ranges

with rabbitskins soft on their feet.

But now Jack in his Empire brickyard

has already give back his shoes

and entered the cleanliness kingdom,

the Commonwealth drums through the walls

and I’m weary of news.

I’m sorry, old Jack, I discharged you,

you might have enjoyed running free

of plonk and wet cornbags and colour

with us pair of outlaws. But see,

you can’t trust even half a whitefeller.

You died of White Lady through me.

They tried me once running, once standing:

one time ought to do for the drop.

It’s more trial than you got, I hear, Joe,

your tommyhawk’s chipped her last chop.

I hope you don’t mind I got lazy

when the leaks in my back made me stop.

If any gin stands in my print

I’ll give her womb sorrow and dread,

if a buck finds our shape in the tussocks

I’ll whiten the hair in his head,

but a man’s not a rag to wipe boots on

and I got that wrote up, bright red,

where even fine ladies can read it

who never look at the ground

for a man that ain’t fit to breed from

may make a terrible bound

before the knacker’s knife gets him.

Good night to you, father. Sleep sound.

Fetch in my breakfast, Governor,

I have my journey to make

and the ladies all down from the country

are howling outside for my sake.

Jimmy Governor, a part-aboriginal man in his mid-twenties, was hanged at Darlinghurst gaol, Sydney, in January 1901 for a string of murders committed together with his brother Joe and a third man, Jacky Underwood. His motive is taken to have been the racist contempt to which he was routinely exposed. The story was fictionalised in a celebrated novel by Thomas Kenneally, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), which in turn was made into a highly-praised film (1978) directed by Fred Schepisi.




When Queen Victoria died

The whole of England mourned

Not for a so recently breathing old woman

A wife and a mother and a widow,

Not for a staunch upholder of Christendom,

A stickler for etiquette

A vigilant of moral values

But for a symbol.

A symbol of security and prosperity

Of ‘My Country Right or Wrong’

Of ‘God is good and Bad is bad’

And ‘What was good enough for your father

Ought to be good enough for you’

And ‘If you don’t eat your tapioca pudding

You will be locked in your bedroom

And given nothing but bread and water

Over and over again until you come to your senses

And are weak and pale and famished and say

Breathlessly, hopelessly and with hate in your heart

Please Papa I would now like some tapioca pudding very much indeed

A symbol too of proper elegance

Not the flaunting, bejewelled kind

That became so popular

But a truly proper elegance,

An elegance of the spirit,

Of withdrawal from unpleasant subjects

Such as Sex and Poverty and Pit Ponies

And Little Children working in the Mines

And Rude Words and Divorce and Socialism

And numberless other inadmissible horrors.

When Queen Victoria died

They brought her little body from the Isle of Wight

Closed up in a black coffin, finished and done for,

With no longer any feelings and regrets and Memories of Albert

And no more blood pumping through the feeble veins

And no more heart beating away

As it had beaten for so many tiring years.

The coffin was placed upon a gun-carriage

And drawn along sadly and slowly by English sailors.

But long before this the people had mourned

And walked about the streets and the Parks and Kensington Gardens

Silently, solemnly and dressed in black.

Now, with the news already a few days old

The immediate shock had faded.

The business of the funeral was less poignant than the first realization of death,

This was a pageant, right and fitting, but adjustments were already beginning to be made.

This was something we were all used to,

This slow solemnity

This measured progress to the grave.

If it hadn’t been for the gun-carriage

And the crowds and all the flags at half mast

And all the shops being closed

It might just as well have been Aunt Cordelia

Who died a few months earlier in Torquay

And had to be brought up to London by the Great Western

In a rather large coffin

And driven slowly, oh so slowly

To the family burial ground at Esher

With all the relatives driving behind

Wearing black black black and peering furtively out of the carriage windows

To note for a moment that life was going on as usual.

For Aunt Cordelia was no symbol really

And her small death was of little account.

She was, after all, very old indeed

Although not quite so old as Queen Victoria

But on the other hand she didn’t have so much prestige

Except of course in her own personal mind

And that was snuffed out at the same moment as everything else.

Also, unlike Queen Victoria, she had few mourners

Just the family and Mrs Stokes who had been fond of her

And Miss Esme Banks who had looked after her in Torquay

And two remote cousins

Who couldn’t rightly be classed as family

Because they were so very far removed

And only came to the cemetery because it was a sign of respect,

Respect, what is more, without hope

For there was little or no likelihood of their being mentioned in the will

But there they were all the same

Both tall and bent, in black toques with veils,

And both crying.

When Queen Victoria died

And was buried and the gun-carriage was dragged empty away again

The shops reopened and so did the theatres

Although business was none too good.

But still it improved after a while

And everyone began to make plans for the Coronation

And it looked as if nothing much had happened

And perhaps nothing much had really

Except that an era, an epoch, an attitude of mind, was ended.

There would be other eras and epochs and attitudes of mind.

But never quite the same.

Queen Victoria died on 2 February 1901 after a reign of sixty-four years which gave a name to imperial ambitions, entrepreneurial achievements and moral certainties still reverberating through British culture today. Best known for his brilliant (if brittle) plays about the idle rich and his satirical lyrics about the Englishman abroad, Noël Coward was a leading light of the generation that gleefully mocked Victorian attitudes, but there is perhaps a hint of fondness for a lost world of security and stability beneath the surface of his impish sketch of the old queen’s passing.


Bridge-Guard in the Karroo


‘… and will supply details of the Blood River Bridge.’

District Orders: Lines of Communication —

South African War

Sudden the desert changes,

The raw glare softens and clings,

Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges

Stand up like the thrones of Kings —

Ramparts of slaughter and peril —

Blazing, amazing, aglow —

’Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl

And the wine-dark flats below.

Royal the pageant closes,

Lit by the last of the sun —

Opal and ash-of-roses,

Cinnamon, umber, and dun.

The twilight swallows the thicket,

The starlight reveals the ridge.

The whistle shrills to the picket —

We are changing guard on the bridge.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,

Where the empty metals shine —

No, not combatants — only

Details guarding the line.)

We slip through the broken panel

Of fence by the ganger’s shed;

We drop to the waterless channel

And the lean track overhead;

We stumble on refuse of rations,

The beef and the biscuit-tins;

We take our appointed stations,

And the endless night begins.

We hear the Hottentot herders

As the sheep click past to the fold —

And the click of the restless girders

As the steel contracts in the cold —

Voices of jackals calling

And, loud in the hush between,

A morsel of dry earth falling

From the flanks of the scarred ravine.

And the solemn firmament marches,

And the hosts of heaven rise

Framed through the iron arches —

Banded and barred by the ties,

Till we feel the far track humming,

And we see her headlight plain,

And we gather and wait her coming —

The wonderful north-bound train.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,

Where the white car-windows shine —

No, not combatants — only

Details guarding the line.)

Quick, ere the gift escape us!

Out of the darkness we reach

For a handful of week-old papers

And a mouthful of human speech.

And the monstrous heaven rejoices,

And the earth allows again

Meetings, greetings, and voices

Of women talking with men.

So we return to our places,

As out on the bridge she rolls;

And the darkness covers our faces,

And the darkness re-enters our souls.

More than a little lonely

Where the lessening tail-lights shine.

No — not combatants — only

Details guarding the line!

The Karroo is a semi-arid plateau region of southwest South Africa. Oudtshoorn, with mountain ranges to the north and south, is the main town of the Klein Karroo. Blood River, referred to in the epigraph, was the site of a much earlier Boer victory over a greatly superior Zulu force (in 1838). Kipling’s point in referring to this seems to have been to remind his countrymen that it is not always the bigger battalions that win. Despite being cast as the chief drum-beater for Empire, Kipling was by no means blind to the shortcomings of the imperial project, and never lost sympathy for those on the front line.


Story of Lilavanti


They lay the slender body down

With all its wealth of wetted hair,

Only a daughter of the town,

But very young and slight and fair.

The eyes, whose light one cannot see,

Are sombre doubtless, like the tresses,

The mouth’s soft curvings seem to be

A roseate series of caresses.

And where the skin has all but dried

(The air is sultry in the room)

Upon her breast and either side,

It shows a soft and amber bloom.

By women here, who knew her life,

A leper husband, I am told,

Took all this loveliness to wife

When it was barely ten years old.

And when the child in shocked dismay

Fled from the hated husband’s care

He caught and tied her, so they say,

Down to his bedside by her hair.

To some low quarter of the town,

Escaped a second time, she flew;

Her beauty brought her great renown

And many lovers here she knew,

When, as the mystic Eastern night

With purple shadow filled the air,

Behind her window framed in light,

She sat with jasmin in her hair.

At last she loved a youth, who chose

To keep this wild flower for his own,

He in his garden set his rose

Where it might bloom for him alone.

Cholera came; her lover died,

Want drove her to the streets again,

And women found her there, who tried

To turn her beauty into gain.

But she who in those garden ways

Had learnt of Love, would now no more

Be bartered in the market place

For silver, as in days before.

That former life she strove to change;

She sold the silver off her arms,

While all the world grew cold and strange

To broken health and fading charms.

Till, finding lovers, but no friend,

Nor any place to rest or hide,

She grew despairing at the end,

Slipped softly down a well and died.

And yet, how short, when all is said,

This little life of love and tears!

Her age, they say, beside her bed,

To-day is only fifteen years.

Adela Nicolson offered her poems as translations, and in many of them traded on an orientalist taste that ran high among British readers when the Indian Raj was at its peak, but in the ‘Story of Lilavanti’ she shows a firm-minded willingness to tell a shocking story in plain language.




I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Autumn Morning at Cambridge


I ran out in the morning, when the air was clean and new

And all the grass was glittering and grey with autumn dew,

I ran out to an apple-tree and pulled an apple down,

And all the bells were ringing in the old grey town.

Down in the town off the bridges and the grass,

They are sweeping up the leaves to let the people pass,

Sweeping up the old leaves, golden-reds and browns,

Whilst the men go to lecture with the wind in their gowns.


The Olive


The olive in its orchard

Should now be rooted sure,

To cast abroad its branches

And flourish and endure.

Aloft amid the trenches

Its dressers dug and died

The olive in its orchard

Should prosper and abide.

Close should the fruit be clustered

And light the leaf should wave,

So deep the root is planted

In the corrupting grave.


‘I did not lose my heart in summer’s even’


I did not lose my heart in summer’s even,

When roses to the moonrise burst apart:

When plumes were under heel and lead was flying,

In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart.

I lost it to a soldier and a foeman,

A chap that did not kill me, but he tried;

That took the sabre straight and took it striking

And laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.




Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

With a cargo of diamonds,

Emeralds, amethysts,

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with

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