Stand and Wait

Stand and Wait

I thought I’d post two or three poems each week. Poems that I’ve enjoyed, poems that I used to read to Nicola, and poems that seem to be appropriate. I’ll talk a bit about the author of the poem, and why I’ve chosen it. I’m calling it “Poet’s Day: Going from Bad to Verse” 😉

I’m posting poems that are in the public domain until I understand the copyright situation better.

This week’s poems are:

Poem 1. Sonnet 19: When I Consider How my Light is Spent

Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

John Milton (1608—1674)

When I consider how my light is spent,
 Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
 And that one Talent which is death to hide
 Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
 My true account, lest he returning chide;
 “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
 I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
 Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
 Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
 And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
 They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The first poem is one I listened to this morning, read by Anton Lesser. It is a sonnet written by John Milton and first published in 1673 though it seems to have been written between 1652 and 1655, after which Milton was completely blind. He had been a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England and was internationally famed in his own lifetime for his writings which included the epic poem “Paradise Lost” and prose supporting the Parliamentary cause. The poem is also known as “On His Blindness”, having been so titled by Bishop John Newton.

He muses on his enforced uselessness and his wish to be of service lest his Maker return (Milton was a Puritan) and upbraid him for idleness. He concludes that God needs no proof of a person’s worth; only their faith is necessary. There are those who are fully occupied in doing God’s work, but those who can “only stand and wait” are also serving their Maker.

This resonated with me because of our peculiar situation.

Many are working incredibly hard right now: the marvellous people in the NHS, the emergency services and public servants, shop workers and those who are “speeding and posting o’er land and sea” to deliver to shops and to individuals.

The rest of us can “only stand and wait”, but we should never doubt that we are serving a cause no less important than Milton conceived his to be: by doing so, we are doing our best to protect the NHS and its people from a tsunami of sickness.

Everyone will know someone who works in a hospital, ambulance service or in another key role—you are helping them to stay safe and sane and to help those who need help most. Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. Or as Milton put it, stand and wait.


Poem 2. The Listeners

“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.

Walter de la Mare (1873—1956)

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

I used to read this poem to Nicola: it was one of her favourites. It is mysterious, and hints at a much bigger story: who is the Traveller? What did he promise? Why is the house full of ghosts? Is he the one man left awake? Why?

The poem builds a wonderful atmosphere—you can imagine the man knocking at the door of this deserted place in the moon light, and the dree feeling he gets as he awaits an answer. It reminds me of the Genesis songs “Home by the Sea” and ”Second Home by the Sea” where a burglar breaks into a haunted house only to be captured and forced to listen to the ghosts’ stories eternally.

Walter de la Mare was an English writer known for his poems, short stories and novels which include the unsettling horror tales “Seaton’s Aunt” and “All Hallows” which were praised by the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft in his survey “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, but he is perhaps best known today for this imaginative, atmospheric poem.


Poem 3. The Donkey

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton (1874—1936)

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

I have chosen this because it is Palm Sunday this weekend, and Chesterton’s poem fits perfectly. It reminds us that no matter how ugly or unpleasing to the eye, everything on Earth has a purpose.

Chesterton was many things: a writer, philosopher, theologian and critic, described by George Bernard Shaw as “a man of colossal genius”. He wrote verse and prose and is remembered generally as the author of “The Man Who Was Thursday” and the Father Brown stories. He was closely associated with the writer Hilaire Belloc and long before Brangelina and Kimye, George Bernard Shaw coined the term “Chesterbelloc” for their friendship.