memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘poem’

Her pilgrim soul



When I was young I greatly admired the poem When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats, the middle verse of which I quote:

How many loved your glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true;

But one loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

Now I’m getting to be quite old myself and well, it has more meaning for me and I still like it.



I wish I had a Sivia Plath

I wish I had a Silvia Plath

Mournfully sings Ryan Adams

On his best-selling album Gold.

I know exactly how he feels.

I too wish I had a Silvia Plath

We too would drink Martinis

Very dry – three parts gin

And drink them

In front of a portrait of

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

The inventor of vermouth

And discuss her art and sullen craft

And how she became a legend

Converting trauma

Into triumphant and terrible words

And why she described Ariel

As a blood-jet.



And I’m sure she would agree

To me paying tribute to her

With her last prescient

And perfect poem:


The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:

We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,

One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals

Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed

From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,

Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.

Her blacks crackle and drag.


Dover Beach & Rugby

During the early sixties the Port of Dover still had medium-priced respectable hotels with names like The White Cliffs with potted plants in the lounge and middle-aged bow-tied pianists playing sub-Cole Porter numbers with rolling eyes and a sort of louche panache. The town itself, with its tangy sea-air, its cries of sea-gulls and its dazzling white cliffs seemed to offer shelter and solace from the long and confusing journey through childhood.



And later, as the ship edged out of stone harbour of my boyhood to meet the butting pitching sea, I would linger in the stern watching the shoreline of England – those famous gleaming white cliffs – receding to the horizon and feel an unfamiliar ache in my heart.

(I have since discovered that the Portuguese language, that melancholy vehicle, encapsulates that emotion in one single word – saudades).

Be that as it may, I should now like to share with you another of my favourite poems.



Written by Mathew Arnold (poet-son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the charismatic and pioneering headmaster of Rugby School,



who features memorably in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays

in 1869, it is called Dover Beach:

The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Sailing to Byzantium (2)

I have always considered that this poem, Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats, to be very beautiful.

Sailing to Byzantium

THAT is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

– Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.



The Bookworm

Today I was flicking through that brilliantly conceived anthology of poems edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes called The School Bag. If ever there was a book designed to be flicked through this is it. I came across this anonymous little verse (in old English) from the tenth century:


A worm ate words. I thought that wonderfully

Strange – a miracle – when they told me a crawling

Insect had swallowed noble songs,

A night-time thief had stolen writing

So famous, so weighty. But the bug was foolish

Still, though its belly was full of thought.


There is a woman here who knows everything – she has no doubts (although she neither reads nor writes). She has swallowed noble songs; she is wise indeed.

I am a foolish shaky man (though my belly is full).


John Masefield could write a mean poem too:



Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir                                                                                               Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cederwood, 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 salt-caked smoke stack

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rail, pig-lead,

Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays.

At the hospital

We all stood around our father’s body,

Laid out like an ancient Patriarch,

Unseeing eyes tilted towards acceptance,



Later I sat by the garden-waters and wept,

Remembering how he used to show me

His books, family treasures, one by one.


I then returned to my own place,

Tranquil in the hot season

Dry wind sighing through pine and eucalyptus.


But worming through the myriad-mazes

Of my dreams crept an uninvited guest,

The intimation of my mortality.


When the going was good



Still a sad glamour clung to Travel in those days,

The coal-fire in the cold-stone waiting-room

Of a draughty Yorkshire branch-line station,


The 8.00 pm boat-train from Victoria

Rocketing through the dark Kent fields

Arriving at gull-shrieking salt-air Dover.


Orly at dawn waiting in the transit-lounge

For the tense flight across the glittering sea

And on to the hot sands of Africa.


I took advantage of my freedom.

I went when the going was good

And arrived at a dry stony place.


A Moment of Truth

I caught a moment of truth

There in that old church,

Sitting remotely gazing

At the old carved gold

Of that quiet place.


I tried to pray

For me and mine

And for departed souls,

But my mind broke free,

Lifted and fluttered trapped,

Jerky and sorrowful, under

The fiddling fluted baroque

Of the Renaissance dome.


The purple of childhood’s

Dolorous Church

The stations of agony

Of English Gothic

The correct anticipation of

Decorous Easter – the cool,

Delicious costly scent of

Sculptured French chocolate.


Out again into the sunlight

On the steps of the old Convent

Church, I pause in that beauty –

The bright Portuguese light

The town below me

And the ocean gleaming over the trees.

Oh! Thank you for the day

29 . 3 . 97

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