Playing Favourites

Playing Favourites

This week marks my birthday, so I’m going to choose some of my favourites. They are Rudyard Kipling’s “The Roman Centurion’s Song“, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid” and Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata“.

Others that I like very much:

I can’t let this week go by without commenting on the news that poetry is one of the subjects that can be dropped by GCSE English literature students in 2021. I’m a bit ambivalent about this, partly because I remember being taught poetry for O level English literature at school and disliking the experience, but I feel it would be a great shame if this vibrant form of literature was dropped en masse. I think that enthusiasm for any art form is something you pick up from your environment, rather than a thing that can be taught. I got my enthusiasm for poetry by reading it for myself rather than having it forced upon me.

I am reminded of John Keating, the inspirational English teacher played by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poet’s Society” who says,

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute, we read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for. The quote from Whitman:

‘O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish

What good amid these. O me, O life.

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’

That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Dead Poet’s Society; the Whitman quote is from “O Me! O Life!”
Robin Williams as John Keating: “What will your verse be?”

Poem 55. The Roman Centurion’s Song

I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)
Legate, I had the news last night, my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!
I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.
Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid, my wife, my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?
For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze,
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?
You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine an olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!
You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but will you e'er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?
Let me work here for Britain's sake, at any task you will,
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.
Legate, I come to you in tears, My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!

I love this poem because it speaks of a man who loves his home. This Roman centurion has gone native: he no longer wishes to return to the balmy climate of Rome and the adulation of the mob, preferring to remain in the English backwaters where he has spent all his life, and where the only family he has ever known are: his wife and child, laid in the British soil. He feels that although he has been ordered “home”, he would feel a foreigner there. By the end of the poem, he is almost begging his superior to rescind the order sending him home.

I like the way Kipling constructed this poem—the middle of each line rhymes as well as the end. I like “The clanging arch of steel-grey March” which exactly expresses the colour of the sky as a storm builds on a grey spring day, “The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet” are two that stand out.

Some geographic notes: Portus Itius was a port somewhere in northern France, Vectis was the Roman name for the Isle of Wight, Euroclydon is a tempestuous Mediterranean wind, Rhodanus was the Latin name for the river Rhône, Nemausus is how the town of Nîmes was known to the Romans, Arelate was the Latin name for Arles and lastly, the Aurelian road (or Via Aurelia as the Romans called it) ran from Rome to Pisa.

Kipling wrote a lot of powerful and patriotic poetry and the sentiments of his time are often inappropriate in the modern context, but this seems to me to be a beautiful love song to Britain. I think some of Kipling’s best work is expressed by individual characters like this Roman centurion or Tommy, which I covered at the beginning of May.

Poem 56. Inversnaid

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844—1889)
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

I love this poem because it has such a beautiful rhythm and Hopkins uses alliteration wonderfully and he conveys a gorgeous picture of a natural scene. It seems to me that Hopkins is on the side of Nature, wishing for this beautiful scene to be left unblemished.

Like so many of Hopkins poems, this is best when read out loud, if you can get your tongue to say the words without spraining it.

Links

Poem 57. Desiderata

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world

Max Ehrmann (1872—1945)
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

This prose poem was written by Max Ehrmann in the 1920s; he distributed it as a Christmas card in 1933. In 1959-60, the rector of Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore included Desiderata in a compilation of devotional prose and poetry for his congregation; the compilation included a rubric, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692” which has since been erroneously taken as the composition date of the poem. In some versions, “Be cheerful” is replaced by “Be careful” and “the noise and the haste” is subtly modified to read, “the noise and haste” which reads better in my opinion.

Unfortunately, a public domain picture of Max Ehrmann is unavailable, but you can see a photo of him in his Wikipedia entry.

I like this because it seems to be full of wisdom and it often comes to mind when I’m pondering the world’s foibles. Perhaps this counts as taking kindly the counsel of the years.

Links