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The Conundrum of the Workshops -- Rudyard Kipling

Guest poem sent in by Arun Krishnaswamy Simha
(Poem #305) The Conundrum of the Workshops
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew --
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons -- and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled "Is it Art?" in the ear of the branded Cain.

They fought and they talked in the North and the South, they talked and they fought in the West,
Till the waters rose on the pitiful land, and the poor Red Clay had rest --
Had rest till that dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start,
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: "It's human, but is it Art?"

They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks "It's striking, but is it Art?"
The stone was dropped at the quarry-side and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of Art, and each in an alien tongue.

They fought and they talked in the North and the South, they talked and they fought in the West,
Till the waters rose on the pitiful land, and the poor Red Clay had rest --
Had rest til the dank, blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start,
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: "It's human, but is it Art?"

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree -- and new as the new-cut tooth --
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: "You did it, but was it Art?"

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice- peg
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yelk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art?"

When the flicker of London sun falls faint on the Club-room's green and gold,
The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mould --
They scratch with their pens in the mould of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start,
For the Devil mutters behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Now if we could win to the Eden Tree where the Four Great Rivers, flow,
And the Wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept and softly scurry through,
By the favour of God we might know as much as out father Adam knew.
-- Rudyard Kipling
Funnily enough, my appreciation of this poem did not start from a vitriolic
critique in a paper. This poem actually spurred me to understand the genius
of Sachin Tendulkar!

I'm a member of a cricket mailing list and also venture into the hallowed
portals of once in a while. Every now and then you see
cricketer bashing. Sachin cannot play on bouncy tracks, Sachin can't bat
against McGrath etc. We, the "knowledgeables", often dissect his artistry
so much that it fails to provide us joy. Instead, we try to probe deeper
and deeper into his failings. People like Sachin, Warne and Lara come to
the world stage once in a lifetime. Let us relish them while they are
there. ..

...and yes, the shot was in the air all right..and it *Still* was art!!!!!

I think Kipling seems to have taken a critique too personally. To me, the
poem seems to be a response to de-humanizing creation. After all, every
creation is art. Who are critics - or devils - to label something as art?
[broken link]

Arun Simha

The Subway Piranhas -- Edwin Morgan

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #304) The Subway Piranhas
  Did anyone tell you
  that in each subway train
  there is one special seat
  with a small hole in it
  and underneath the seat
  is a tank of piranha-fish
  which have not been fed
  for quite some time.
  The fish become quite agitated
  by the shoogling of the train
  and jump up through the seat.
  The resulting skeletons
  of unlucky passengers
  turn an honest penny
  for the transport executive,
  hanging far and wide
  in medical schools.
-- Edwin Morgan
Some years ago, Edwin Morgan was commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council
to write a series of poems for the inauguration of Glasgow's refurbished
Underground system. He sent this sample, which sent such alarm through the
Strathclyde transport executive that they decided against using the poems.

from Poems On The Underground

Even London Underground didn't dare to use the poem - its only given in the
anthology's notes. I was reminded of it both by the Morgan poem you gave,
and by a trip last week to Calcutta. Passing the entrances to the Calcutta
Metro, I couldn't help remembering that Calcutta is also the centre of
India's thriving human skeleton export trade...


The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard -- Anonymous

Guest poem sent in by Lamba Aaman

Here's a nice ballad I came across - one with a Holmesian touch!

The version I include here is from Percy's Reliques (1658):
(Poem #303) The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
 As it fell out on a highe holye daye,
     As many bee in the yeare,
 When yong men and maides together do goe
     Their masses and mattins to heare,

 Little Musgràve came to the church door,
     The priest was at the mass ;
 But he had more mind of the fine women,
     Then he had of our Ladyes grace.

 And some of them were clad in greene,
     And others were clad in pall ;
 And then came in my lord Barnardes wife,
     The fairest among them all.

 Shee cast an eye on little Musgràve
     As bright as the summer sunne :
 O then bethought him little Musgràve,
     This ladyes heart I have wonne.

 Quoth she, I have loved thee, little Musgràve,
     Full long and manye a daye.
 So have I loved you, ladye faire,
     Yet word I never durst saye.

 I have a bower at Bucklesford-Bury,
     Full daintilye bedight,
 If thoult wend thither, my little Musgràve,
     Thoust lig in mine armes all night.

 Quoth hee, I thank yee, ladye faire,
     This kindness yee shew to me ;
 And whether it be to my weale or woe,
     This night will I lig with thee.

 All this beheard a litle foot-page,
     By his ladyes coach as he ranne :
 Quoth he, thoughe I am my ladyes page,
     Yet Ime my lord Barnardes manne.

 My lord Barnàrd shall knowe of this,
     Although I lose a limbe.
 And ever whereas the bridges were broke,
     He layd him downe to swimme.

 Asleep or awake, thou lord Barnàrd,
     As thou art a man of life,
 Lo! this same night at Bucklesford-Bury
     Litle Musgrave's in bed with thy wife.

 If it be trew, thou litle foote-page,
     This tale thou hast told to mee,
 Then all my lands in Bucklesford-Bury
     I freelye will give to thee.

 But an it be a lye, thou litle foot-page,
     This tale thou hast told to mee,
 On the highest tree in Bucklesford-Bury
     All hanged shalt thou bee.

 Rise up, rise up, my merry men all,
     And saddle me my good steede ;
 This night must I to Bucklesford-Bury ;
     God wott, I had never more neede.

 Then some they whistled, and some they sang,
     And some did loudlye saye,
 Whenever lord Barnardes horne it blewe,
     Awaye, Musgràve, away.

 Methinkes I heare the throstle cocke,
     Methinkes I heare the jay,
 Methinkes I heare lord Barnards horne ;
     I would I were awaye.

 Lye still, lye still, thou little Musgràve,
     And huggle me from the cold ;
 For it is but some shephardes boye
     A whistling his sheepe to the fold.

 Is not thy hawke upon the pearche,
     Thy horse eating corne and haye ?
 And thou a gay lady within thine armes :
     And wouldst thou be awaye ?

 By this lord Barnard was come to the dore,
     And lighted upon a stone :
 And he pulled out three silver keyes,
     And opened the dores eche one.

 He lifted up the coverlett,
     He lifted up the sheete ;
 How now, how now, thou little Musgràve,
     Dost find my gaye ladye sweete ?

 I find her sweete, quoth little Musgràve,
     The more is my griefe and paine ;
 Ide gladlye give three hundred poundes
     That I were on yonder plaine.

 Arise, arise, thou little Musgràve,
     And put thy cloathes nowe on,
 It shall never be said in my countree,
     That I killed a naked man.

 I have two swordes in one scabbàrde,
     Full deare they cost my purse ;
 And thou shalt have the best of them,
     And I will have the worse.

 The first stroke that little Musgrave strucke,
     He hurt lord Barnard sore,
 The next stroke that lord Barnard strucke,
     Little Musgrave never strucke more.

 With that bespake the ladye faire,
     In bed whereas she laye,
 Althoughe thou art dead, my little Musgràve,
     Yet for thee I will praye :

 And wishe well to thy soule will I,

     So long as I have life ;
 So will I not do for thee, Barnàrd,
     Thoughe I am thy wedded wife.

 He cut her pappes from off her brest ;
     Great pitye it was to see
 The drops of this fair ladyes bloode
     Run trickling downe her knee.

 Wo worth, wo worth ye, my merrye men all,
     You never were borne for my goode :
 Why did you not offer to stay my hande,
     When you sawe me wax so woode ?

 For I have slaine the fairest sir knighte,
     That ever rode on a steede ;
 So have I done the fairest lady,
     That ever ware womans weede.

 A grave, a grave, Lord Barnard cryde,
     To putt these lovers in ;
 But lay my ladye o' the upper hande,
     For she comes o' the better kin.
-- Anonymous

Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Scottish border
country was ravaged by lawless Reiver[1] families in a vicious cycle of
raid, reprisal and blood feud. Their allegiance was first to the family,
the surname, not the crown, whether English or Scottish. Many of these
reiver families were married into both sides of the border. Divided up
into three Marches on each side of the border, each with its own warden,
the crown made some attempt to control the volatile region. Strongpoints
were castles and Pele towers, hundreds are still to be found, some even
in use today. Many of the alarums and excursions found their way into
the "Border Ballads" like those collected by Sir Walter Scott (Scott
even used a quote from "Little Musgrave" as a chapter quote in Chapter
Sixteenth of The Heart of Midlothian: "And some they whistled - and some
they sang, And some did loudly say, Whenever Lord Barnard's horn it
blew, 'Away, Musgrave, away!'"). I make no specific claim for this,
except that Dr. Watson and his literary agent, the inveterate Walter
Scott readers,  might have come across the name in Scott and used it to
mask that of another of the families of the March.

One of these families was that of the Musgraves, which gave its name to
the villages of Great Musgrave and Little Musgrave north of Kirkby
Stephen in Westmorland. "Little Musgrave" may simply have been the
knightly branch based in that location.

The ballad often rendered as "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard", "Little
Musgrave" and "Matthy Groves" (among others) has been found in texts as
early as 1611[2], and may originate at least a century before. It is known
as Child Ballad 81, from the grand five volume compendium of folk song
collected by 19th century folklorist Francis James Child, English and
Scottish Popular Ballads[3]. It's fascinating to see how it's been
collected throughout the British Isles, and in Canada and the United
States (here in the anglophonic diaspora, it has persisted long after it
had in England); its text mutating through that charming strangeness
know as "the folk process". Child lists 15 variant texts, and other song
collectors even more. Numerous folksingers[4] have recorded one version or
another in more recent years.

Here are some of the permutations of our principal players found in
various versions of the ballad (and there are many more than I list here):
The Husband     The Young Man
Lord Barnard    Little Musgrave
Lord Barnet     Little Masgrove
Lord Barnabas   Mossgrey
Lord Arnold     Little Matthy Groves
Lord Allen      Matthy Groves
Lord Daniel     Little Matthew Groves
Lord Dannel     Marshall Groves
Lord Donald     Matty Groves
Lord Bengwill   Little Sir Grove
Lord Orland     Little Matthew Groves

Some versions even include ritual questions from the Lord to the young
man. I particularly like the lines that go:

Saying, "How do you like my feather bed, Musgrave?
And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady,
Who lies in your arms asleep?"

"Oh, well do I like your feather bed,
And well do I like your sheets,
But better I like your lady gay,
Who lies in my arms asleep."

1 The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Reivers, by George
  Macdonald Fraser (author of the Flashman Papers). This is a splendid
  study of the region and period, full of excitement.
2 A fragment is also quoted in John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont's (as
  in the well-worn theatrical phrase: "That went out with Beaumont &
  Fletcher!") 1611 play. "The Knight of the Burning Pestle," Act V, scene
  And some they whistled, and some they sung,
  "Hey, down, down!"
  And some did loudly say,
  Ever as the Lord Barnet's horn blew,
  "Away, Musgrave, away!"
3  English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child
  (1825-1896). Five volumes published 1882 through 1898. I have referred
  to the 1965 reprint by Dover  Publications from the Houghton, Mifflin &
  Company edition.
4 Just from my collection:  Fairport Convention, as "Matty Groves" on
  "Liege & Lief" (Island, 1969) and more recently on "In Real Time: Live
  '87" (Island, 1987); and as "Little Musgrave" by Frankie Armstrong,
  "Songs & Ballads" (Antilles, 1975); Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick,
  "Prince Heathen"; Planxty, "The Woman I Loved So Well" (Tara, 1980); and
  Eileen McGann, "Heritage" (Dragonwing Music, 1997).

Thanatopsis -- William Cullen Bryant

Guest poem sent in by Mukund Rangamani
(Poem #302) Thanatopsis
     To him who in the love of Nature holds
  Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
  A various language; for his gayer hours
  She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
  And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
  Into his darker musings, with a mild
  And healing sympathy, that steals away
  Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
  Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
  Over thy spirit, and sad images
  Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
  And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
  Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;--
  Go forth, under the open sky, and list
  To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
  Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
  Comes a still voice--Yet a few days, and thee
  The all-beholding sun shall see no more
  In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
  Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
  Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
  Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
  Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
  And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
  Thine individual being, shalt thou go
  To mix for ever with the elements,
  To be a brother to the insensible rock
  And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
  Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
  Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

     Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
  Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
  Couch more magnificient. Thou shalt lie down
  With patriarchs of the infant world--with kings,
  The powerful of the earth--the wise, the good
  Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
  All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
  Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,--the vales
  Stretching in pensive quietness between;
  The venerable woods--rivers that move
  In majesty, and the complaining brooks
  That make the meadow green; and, poured round all,
  Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
  Are but the solemn decorations all
  Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
  The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
  Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
  Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
  The globe are but a handful to the tribes
  That slumber in its bosom.--Take the wings
  Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
  Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
  Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
  Save his own dashings--yet the dead are there:
  And millions in those solitudes, since first
  The flight of years began, have laid them down
  In their last sleep--the dead reign there alone.
  So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
  In silence from the living, and no friend
  Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
  Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
  When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
  Plod on, and each one as before will chase
  His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
  Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
  And make their bed with thee. As the long train
  Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
  The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
  In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
  The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
  Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
  By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

     So live, and when thy summons comes to join
  The innumerable caravan, which moves
  To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
  His chamber in the silent halls of death,
  Thou go not, like a quarry-slave at night,
  Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
  By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
  Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
  About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
-- William Cullen Bryant
A descendant of early Puritan immigrants, Bryant at 16 entered the sophomore
class of Williams College. Because of finances and in hopes of attending
Yale, he withdrew without graduating. Unable to enter Yale, he studied law
under private guidance at Worthington and at Bridgewater and at 21 was
admitted to the bar. He spent nearly 10 years in Plainfield and at Great
Barrington as an attorney, a calling for which he held a lifelong aversion.
At 26 Bryant married Frances Fairchild, with whom he was happy until her
death nearly half a century later. In 1825 he moved to New York City to
become coeditor of the New York Review. He became an editor of the Evening
Post in 1827; in 1829 he became editor in chief and part owner and continued
in this position until his death. His careful investment of his income made
Bryant wealthy. He was an active patron of the arts and letters.

The religious conservatism imposed on Bryant in childhood found expression
in pious doggerel; the political conservatism of his father stimulated "The
Embargo" (1808), in which the 13-year-old poet demanded the resignation of
President Jefferson. But in "Thanatopsis" (from the Greek "a view of
death"), which he wrote when he was 17 and which made him famous when it was
published in The North American Review in 1817, he rejected Puritan dogma
for Deism; thereafter he was a Unitarian. Turning also from Federalism, he
joined the Democratic party and made the Post an organ of free trade,
workingmen's rights, free speech, and abolition. Bryant was for a time a
Free-Soiler and later one of the founders of the Republican party. As a man
of letters, Bryant securely established himself at the age of 27 with Poems
(1821). In his later years he devoted considerable time to translations.

The Noble Nature -- Ben Jonson

Merry Christmas everyone :)

Guest poem sent in by Mallika
(Poem #301) The Noble Nature
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night --
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.
-- Ben Jonson
This puts into perspective some of the
misplaced energy of our times; prolonging
life - on what terms? To pull the plug

The Hippocratic oath was to reduce
suffering, not to play god.

BJ was a contemporary of Shakespeare
and Inigo Jones; he was Poet Laureate
both unofficially and by appointment.

More on BJ at:


The Gift of God - -- Edwin Arlington Robinson

Guest poem sent in by Rajeev
(Poem #300) The Gift of God -
  Blessed with a joy that only she
  Of all alive shall ever know,
  She wears a proud humility
  For what it was that willed it so -
  That her degree should be so great
  Among the favoured of the Lord
  That she may scarcely bear the weight
  Of her bewildering reward.

  As one apart, immune, alone,
  Or featured for the shining ones,
  And like to none that she has known
  Of other women's other sons -
  The firm fruition of her need,
  He shines anointed; and he blurs
  Her vision, till it seems indeed
  A sacrilege to call him hers.

  She fears a little for so much
  Of what is best, and hardly dares
  To think of him as one to touch
  With aches, indignities, and cares;
  She sees him rather at the goal,
  Still shining; and her dream foretells
  The proper shining of a soul
  Where nothing ordinary dwells.

  Perchance a canvass of the town
  Would find him far from flags and shouts,
  And leave him only the renown
  Of many smiles and many doubts;
  Perchance the crude and common tongue
  Would havoc strangely with his worth;
  But she, with innocence unwrung,
  Would read his name around the earth.

  And others, knowing how this youth
  Would shine, if love could make him great,
  When caught and tortured for the truth
  Would only writhe and hesitate;
  While she, arranging for his days
  What centuries could not fulfil,
  Transmutes him with her faith and praise,
  And has him shining where she will.

  She crowns him with her gratefulness,
  And says again that life is good;
  And should the gift of God be less
  In him than in her motherhood,
  His fame, though vague, will not be small
  As upward through her dream he fares,
  Half clouded with a crimson fall
  Of roses thrown on marble stairs.
-- Edwin Arlington Robinson
I came across this in a random search for American poets. The site url is
Immediate reaction on reading this was to send it to my mother. That, I
suppose, says it all.
I have no comments on the construction of the poem - I don't know that much.
But I've always read poetry because of the element of music attached
(sing-song, if you will)
- and this one has its own music.


PS - My mother loves it!!

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born on Dec. 22, 1869, at Head Tide in Maine
and until 1897 lived at the family home in Gardiner, Maine, aside from
several years as a student at Harvard University. For the rest of his life
he moved in New York and devoted his life to writing poetry. Robinson earned
a small living first as a subway inspector and then in the city's customs
office. He resided in rooms at boarding houses in New York and Yonkers, at
the Hotel Judson on Washington Square, in Brooklyn at 810 Washington Ave.,
and at last on West 42nd Street. His Collected Poems in 1922 received the
Pulitzer Prize and earned him a degree as Doctor of Literature at Yale
University. Although best known for his short poems, long poems such as
Captain Craig (1902), Lancelot (1920), The Man Who Died Twice (1924), and
Tristram (1927) earned him acclaim from his peers. The last two of these won
Pulitzer Prizes in 1925 and 1927, when he was elected as a member of the
National Academy of Arts and Letters. Robinson never married but enjoyed the
company of many friends. He died of cancer in hospital in New York on April
6, 1935.

Taking My Business Elsewhere -- Richard Thompson

Guest poem sent in by Amit Chakrabarti
(Poem #299) Taking My Business Elsewhere
  If she's not here by now, then I guess she's not coming
  If she's not here by now, then I guess she don't care
  Oh waiter, I won't waste your time anymore
  You've already started to sweep down the floor
  And I guess she's not coming, so I'll head for the door
  I'll be taking my business elsewhere

  It wasn't for me, that spark in her eyes
  It wasn't for me, that halo in her hair
  When she touched me a lump rose up into my throat
  But she must act that way with any old soak
  And waiter you don't seem to share in the joke
  So I'll be taking my business elsewhere

        She called me her fantasy
        And boldly she kissed me
        I'll never get over the sheer surprise
        Of her acting that way
        And I'm healing okay
        But for the eyes of her...

  Oh it's cold in the rain and it's dark and it's sad
  And I'll miss her tonight on my lonely back stair
  I'm sorry for taking so much of your space
  I'll move down the street to some friendlier place
  'Cause I guess she's not coming, and you're sick of my face
  I'll be taking my business elsewhere
-- Richard Thompson


With simple words and commonplace imagery Thompson paints
a picture that has doubtless haunted every man with red
blood in his veins. Any man who has actually experienced
something similar (and I do hope nobody on this list has)
will probably empathise instantly with the poor bloke who
is the narrator of this poem.

As a piece of poetry it is, I think, good though certainly
not great. Note how the poem evokes images of events that
happened earlier and that are not narrated here directly.
It is this "implicit imagery" aspect that raises this above
the ordinary. Of course the explicit imagery of the brooding,
possibly solitary, man in the cafe (bar? restaurant?) gets
to me too.

Ladies, I hope this touches you emotionally as well!

This was not written to be a poem. These are lyrics to a
song. Thomas has already pointed out some of the limitations
of popular song lyrics which must be borne in mind while
assessing their merit as poetry[1]. Thus the bridge, which
I've intentionally indented, would be jarring in a poem[2]
but should be forgiven here because of the requirements of
song sturcture.

[1] See poem #287.
[2] If I had to make a poem of it, I'd just delete the bridge.

Following Thomas, I urge you to give the song (whose melody
and slow rhythm are truly haunting) three good listens and
then reread the lyrics; your perception of the words above
*will* be changed. The song can be found on Thompson's album
"Mirror Blue" which is, IMHO, one of the finest rock albums
of the 90s. For more on the album, see [Bio].


Having deleted the bridge, the rest of the lyrics do have
compelling strcture. Apart from the obvious rhymes in lines
3-4-5 of each stanza and the one missing foot that gives the
refrain an air of finality, note that the second lines rhyme
across the stanzas. Thompson's use of the trotty anapestic
tetrameter for a serious subject might be questioned[3] but
he is vindicated by Swinburne's "By the North Sea"[4]. Anyway
on the album, Thompson's unique style of delivery greatly
distorts the meter.

[3] Did you question it? :)
[4] Or so Britannica assures me; I couldn't find a copy online.


Richard Thompson is among the most admired guitarists and songwriters
in folk-rock music, and in the 1980s and '90s, he moved from a fervent
cult following to broader exposure while maintaining critical accolades
for his biting guitar work and sardonic songs. He was a founding member
of Fairport Convention, the most important British folk-rock group to
emerge in the 1960s, and he recorded five albums with them.  Quitting
the group in January 1971, he made his debut solo album, "Henry the
Human Fly", before forming a duo with his wife Linda. The Thompsons
released six albums before breaking up personally and professionally.
In 1981, Thompson had made a second solo album of instrumentals,
"Strict Tempo!"; with 1983's "Hand of Kindness", his first charting
album, he relaunched his solo career. A couple of label changes later,
Thompson stuck with Capitol Records, for which he has made "Amnesia",
"Rumor and Sigh", "Mirror Blue", "You? Me? Us?", and "Mock Tudor". A
tribute album, "Beat the Retreat", featuring Thompson's songs performed
by R.E.M., Bob Mould, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, and David Byrne, among
others, offers testimony to the high regard in which Thompson is held.

The above filched shamelessly from AMG's page on Thompson.

The album which contains today's song ("Mirror Blue") is a brilliant
mix of wonderful Celtic acoustic ballads, up-to-date rockers, biting
social commentary and of course today's wistfull, melancholy piece
which is the album's coda. If you're even vaguely interested in folk
rock, buy this album. Now.


An excellent Thompson site:

- Amit
(a.k.a. Chacko)

The Cool Web -- Robert Graves

Guest poem submitted by Pavithra Krishnan :
(Poem #298) The Cool Web
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by,

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the roses's cruel scent,
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way.
-- Robert Graves
I think it's that phrase- 'the cool web'- that drew me to this poem. It's so
suggestive of something fragile, clinging and inescapable. That a poet would
choose such an image to represent language is kind of intriguing. Subtly seems
to imply that poetry too is a safety valve, yet another means of distancing
oneself from any intensity of emotion.I like the economy with which he conjures
up in succession the searing heat of day, the disturbing scent of the rose, the
black vise of night-time fears, and the taste of death that comes with the
soldiers. There's the hopelessness of the no-win situation here.You've either
the icy indifference of 'sea-green' murkiness, or the plunge into death-bound


[My own additions]

A bewitchingly beautiful poem, and one that I couldn't let go uncommented :-).
The central paradox is a subtle one: Graves talks about the protection afforded
by language; at the same time, he's very aware of the danger of losing control,
of losing contact with the reality one is trying to mask. The fact that it's a
poet making these statements is all the more fascinating: after all, isn't it
the role of the bard to draw attention to what words can do?

    "The contradictions cover such a range.
        The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
            You don't want madhouse and the whole thing there."



There's an interesting essay on Graves and his fixation with the figure of the
'White Goddess', available online at

I was sure we'd done more than one poem by him prior to this, but I was wrong...
the only previous Graves to have featured on the Minstrels is the charming
'Welsh Incident', which you can read at poem #55 . There's also a brief
biography of the poet at this URL.

The poem cited above is William Empson's 'Let It Go', at poem #233

[Connection with the theme]

Graves lived most of his life on the island of Majorca, where he wrote love
poems, historical novels, and scholarly studies. The former include some of the
finest lyric verse of this century, while the most famous examples of the latter
are his theory of the White Goddess and his translation of the Rubaiyat. The
historical novels, though - they're the reason I chose him. Apart from the
famous first-person narratives about Ancient Rome (I, Claudius and Claudius the
God), he wrote about the Byzantine Empire (Count Belisarius) and Hellenic
civilization (The Golden Fleece). Connection enough.

The Pobble Who Has No Toes -- Edward Lear

(Poem #297) The Pobble Who Has No Toes
The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said "Some day you may lose them all;"
He replied "Fish, fiddle-de-dee!"
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said "The World in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!"

The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said "No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it's perfectly known that a Pobble's toes
Are safe, -- provided he minds his nose!"

The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side -
"He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska's
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!"

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble's toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away -
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska's Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, -
And she said "It's a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!"
-- Edward Lear
The Pobble's Aunt Jobiska is one of my favourite poetic personages, if only
because she seems to embody the many oh-so-familiar characteristics of aunts
everywhere [1].

The Pobble himself is a rather mysterious character. Like his soulmate, the Dong
with the Luminous Nose, he lives in a surreal, twilit world, populated with
Runcible Cats, Jumbly Girls and Oblong Oysters...


PS. As an aside, I just love the effrontery with which Lear coins the name
'Jobiska', and then goes on to rhyme it with 'whiskers'...

[1] To any of my aunts who may happen to chance upon this email - this doesn't
apply to you, of course :-)


Edward Lear's most celebrated poem is 'The Owl and the Pussycat', which you can
read at poem #165 - there's also a
brief biography of the poet at the same URL.

The other canonical example of nonsense verse is Samuel Foote's 'The Great
Panjandrum', at poem #208

[Connection with the theme]

Edward Lear spent most of his adult life traveling, mainly around the
Mediterranean (though he also spent long stretches in India and Ceylon). He
stayed in Rome, Corfu and San Remo at various times in his life; while there, he
produced a series of justly-celebrated watercolours. His favourite subjects were
songbirds and landscapes, both of which he drew with a delicate touch and a
painstaking attention to detail. The Ashmolean in Oxford has an extensive
selection of his work; it's well worth a visit, if you ever find yourself in
that part of the world.

Footsteps -- Constantine Cavafy

This week's meta-theme: the Mediterranean.
(Poem #296) Footsteps
On an ebony bed decorated
with coral eagles, sound asleep lies
Nero --- unconscious, quiet, and blissful;
thriving in the vigor of flesh,
and in the splendid power of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that encloses
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restive are his Lares.
The little household gods tremble,
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
For they heard a horrible clamor,
a deathly clamor ascending the stairs,
iron footsteps rattling the stairs.
And now in a faint the miserable Lares,
burrow in the depth of the shrine,
one tumbles and stumbles upon the other,
one little god falls over the other
for they understand what sort of clamor this is,
they are already feeling the footsteps of the Furies.
-- Constantine Cavafy

Aenobarbi: Nero belonged to that family.

Lares Familiares: Household gods of the Romans, probably spirits of the
ancestors, worshipped at a shrine by the house hearth.

Furies: In Greek and Roman mythology, the three terrible female spirits with
snaky hair (Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera) who punished the doers of unavenged
crimes; also called Erinyes.

[Minstrels Links]

Cavafy's most famous poem is the wonderful 'Ithaka', which you can read at
poem #217

[On the theme]

I've been reading a fair bit about the Mediterranean lately - the usual Theroux
travelogue (just finished), Durrell's famous quartet (just started), a biography
of Lear, that sort of stuff - and I was struck by the incredible richness of its
heritage... like a palimpsest [1], each place on its storied coast hides layers
upon layers of history and culture. Why, just look at Alexandria - Pharaonic
Egypt, Phoenician traders, Greek conquerors (and scholars - think of the
Library!), eighteen generations of Ptolemies, Roman generals, crypto-Judaic and
Messianic cults, proto-Christianity, Arab invaders, Moors and Tuaregs, Caliphs
and Khedives, French canal-builders and German diplomats, Pashas, Ottomans and
Sahibs in solar topis...

Sorry about that digression - I guess I got slightly carried away :-). Anyway,
regarding the theme: my last poem (Belloc's 'Tarantella') gave me the idea; and
so this week I'll be running a set of poems (slash poets) connected in some or
the other to the 'middle of the world'. Enjoy!


[1] beautiful word, that :-)

Unititled -- Anonymous

Guest poem submitted by C. Surendranath :
(Poem #295) Unititled
Quietly sitting,
not doing anything,
and the grass still grows.
-- Anonymous
From the Tao.

This is a superbly efficient 9 syllables worth of poetry. It sums up the idea
behind the point of all meditation. This kind of writing is quite often
(mis)interpreted as Khayyam-esque hedonism. It is far from that. It gives one
the feeling of being away from the push-and-shove life that we lead. It talks of
the futility of trying to push the processes of Life.


Tarantella -- Hilaire Belloc

(Poem #294) Tarantella
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteeers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in ---
And the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?

    Never more;
    Never more.
    Only the high peaks hoar:
    And Aragon a torrent at the door.
    No sound
    In the walls of the Halls where falls
    The tread
    Of the feet of the dead to the ground
    No sound:
    But the boom
    Of the far Waterfall like Doom.
-- Hilaire Belloc
Nice interplay of form and content here - insistent rhythms, strong assonances,
multiple rhymes (internal as well as line-ending), rising and falling cadences -
all these combine to evoke the dance form of the title. At the same time, the
words themselves paint a vivid (if slightly touristy, imho) picture of the
Mediterranean countryside. As Martin mentioned in a previous post about the
poet, Belloc does indeed have the ability to take a perfectly ordinary event or
emotion and craft an original and memorable work of art from it - and if that's
not genius, what is?


PS. 'Tarantella' : a lively folk dance of southern Italy in 6/8 time. (Italian,
from Taranto, Italy.)

PPS. The opening line - 'Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?' - has been the
starting point for any number of parodies and pastiches. It _does_ have a
certain something about it, don't you think?


Though Belloc lived most of his life in Britain, where he wrote works of prose
and verse in tribute to his adoptive Sussex, he was born in the French town of
La Celle St. Cloud, near Paris. His father, a French lawyer, died when he was
just two years old. Shortly afterwards his English mother, Bessie Parkes, moved
the family to London.

Hilaire was enrolled at the Oratory School where he studied under the legendary
Cardinal Newman. He also met Cardinal Manning, the combative English convert,
who had a lasting influence on his brand of Catholic apologetics. Manning's
social teachings became especially evident in Belloc's later economic writings.

At school, the young Belloc delighted in such classical authors as Homer, Virgil
and Horace and took away most of the student prizes. Unsure of his future
vocation, he spent a brief stint at the French Naval "Stanislas College," but
despite his love of sailing, he quit after just a few weeks.

In 1890 Hilaire met his future wife, Elodie Hogan, an American who was visiting
Europe with her mother. The following year he booked passage to New York from
whence he tramped his way across the continent to Napa Valley, California, in
order to make his proposal to Miss Hogan. Belloc returned to France in 1891 to
spend a year as a soldier in the horse artillery, after which he went to Balliol
College at Oxford. He graduated with top honors in History but due to his
outspoken Catholic views was denied a fellowship.

1896 marked Belloc's marriage to Elodie and the successful publication of The
Bad Child's Book of Beasts a collection of whimsical cautionary tales. This was
soon followed by biographies of the French revolutionaries, Danton and
Robespierre. In 1902 Belloc wrote The Path to Rome describing his one man
pilgrimage to the Holy City; a remarkable travelogue which remains his most
popular work.

Belloc served as a member of parliament from 1906-1910. During a campaign speech
he made his famous defense of the Faith before a largely Protestant audience:

    "I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This [taking a
rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell
these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank
God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!"

After a shocked silence there was a roar of applause, and Belloc won the

Over the next thirty years, Belloc was to churn out dozens of titles on varied
subjects including poetry, fiction, social commentary, and military science.
Belloc is particularly noted for his spirited attack on the then predominant
Whig or classical liberal view of European history. Europe and the Faith (1920),
Characters of the Reformation (1936), and The Crisis of Our Civilization (1937)
are typical of his insightful approach. Belloc also wrote a number of
biographies, including Marie Antoinette (1909), James the Second (1928),
Richlieu (1930), Oliver Cromwell (1934), and Milton (1935) which are still
admired for their lucid and engaging style.

Along with his friend and literary companion G. K. Chesterton, Belloc helped to
found the economic theory of Distributism. Rooted in Leo XIII's landmark
encyclical Rerum Novarum, Distributism was, and is, a meaningful alternative to
the materialism of both laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. According to
Belloc, Europe had seen the decline of slavery and the rise of an independent
property holding yeomanry in the Middle Ages only to have this balanced economic
arrangement upset by the Lutheran revolt of the 16th century. Acquisitive
aristocrats—ostensibly promoting religious reformation, but mostly bent on
filling their own pockets—brought about a polarization of classes and the
emergence of a rootless proletariat which has continued to this day. Ironically,
while Belloc is denounced by liberals for his Catholic "triumphalism" his social
analysis of the Reformation has been largely vindicated by recent scholarship.
The ideas of Distributism were enunciated in The Servile State (1912), The
Restoration of Property (1936) and in the pages of G.K.'s Weekly.

Belloc's contributions to poetry, collected in Sonnets and Verse (1938), are
still acclaimed by literary critics. According to Michael Markel, he "was a
first rate craftsman in the classical tradition of A. E. Housman." Belloc also
tried his hand at novel writing, producing satirical works like The Postmaster
General (1932), as well as light fiction including The Green Overcoat (1912) and
Belinda (1928). What is perhaps his best and most unusual novel, The Four Men
(1911), was later made into a BBC play and has since been reprinted by Oxford
Press with an introduction by A.N. Wilson. The Four Men describes a ramble
through the Sussex countryside by Sailor, Grizzlebeard, Poet and Myself— aspects
of Belloc's own personality. The book's timeless appeal lies in its expression
of the fact that though a man's "loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet
in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and

Despite his outward exuberance as a writer and individual, Belloc faced a number
of personal losses —the death of his wife Elodie in 1914, his sons Louis, in
World War I, and Peter, in World War II. Belloc weathered these storms with that
sort of hard-headed faith he once ascribed to St. Thomas More, who had "nothing
to uphold him except resolve." In 1942, however, he suffered a stroke which put
an end to his literary work though he continued to live in quiet retirement for
another eleven years. This redoubtable Catholic genius died in his beloved
Sussex on July 16, 1953. The BBC interrupted all its programmes to announce the
passing away of one of England's greatest literary figures.

    -- from the Web, [broken link]

[Minstrels Links]

Belloc is most famous for his children's verse, especially the many poems about
beasts like the hippopotamus: poem #124

Of a more serious bent are the poems tinged by religious thought, such as 'Is
there any reward?', at poem #176

For sheer imagery, 'October' is hard to beat: poem #226

while 'The Pelagian Drinking Song' is as funny as they get: poem #78

Howl -- Allen Ginsberg

An excerpt from
(Poem #293) Howl
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to
the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas
and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the
windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets
and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of
marijuana for New York,

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or
purgatoried their torsos night after night,

with dreams, and drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping
toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time
in between

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness
over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic
light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn,
ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy
Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down
shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance
in the drear light of Zoo,

who sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford's, floated out and sat
through the stale beer afternooon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack
of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to
museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,

a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire
escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes
and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,

whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with
brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,

who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture
postcards of Atlantic City Hall,

suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China
under junk-withdrawal in Newark's bleak furnished room,

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where
to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward
lonesome  farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kaballa because
the  cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who
were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter
midnight streetlight smalltown rain,

who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and
followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a
hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa,

who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the
shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace
-- Allen Ginsberg
The dedication reads 'for Carl Solomon'.

'Howl' is not a poem that could ever be described as beautiful, or evocative, or
inspiring, or mystical, or any of the myriad other adjectives that reviewers
like myself are wont to use. Indeed, it doesn't seem to be very 'poetic' (in the
traditional sense of the term) at all; it's unstructured to the point of
incoherence, violent, bizarre, crude, sprawling, energetic ... all told, more of
a delirious rant than a poem.

Yet poem it is, and a brilliant one at that. In the sheer _scale_ of its
undertaking it has very few peers [1], while the mode of expression is both
stunningly original and perfectly suited to the underlying emotion / theme /
state of mind.

An incredibly wild ride...


[1] Dylan's 'Desolation Row' springs to mind, as does T. S. Eliot's 'The


'Howl' in its entirety is a very long poem indeed, and I meant to run only a
dozen or so versets... as it happened, each time I picked a good place to stop,
I'd discover something new and magical a line or two downstream, and would feel
compelled to extend my selection. I guess it just goes to show...

[Minstrels Links]

In previous posts I've mentioned Ginsberg's inheritance of Whitman's mantle;
you can read more about the former at poem #244, and about the latter at
poem #246.

'Desolation Row' can be read at poem #227

[Notes from the Net]

Allen Ginsberg's monumental poem was first heard in a series of famous readings
signaled the arrival of the Beat Generation of writers. The first of these
readings took place in October 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was
Allen Ginsberg's first public performance, and it made him instantly famous at
the age of twenty-nine.

The poem is part Walt Whitman, part Old Testament hellfire ranting, and
hundred-percent performance art. The lines in the famous first part of the poem
tumble over each other in long unbroken breaths, all adding to a single endless

Ginsberg is describing his fellow travelers, the crazy, lonely members of his
community of misunderstood poet artists, unpublished novelists, psychotics,
radicals, pranksters, sexual deviants and junkies. At the time that he wrote
this he'd seen several of his promising young friends broken or killed...
[various lines in the poem] describe real-life events by people Ginsberg knew,
but the poem is especially dedicated to Carl Solomon, Ginsberg's crazy-insane
hyper-intellectual friend who he'd met in a mental hospital years before:

    -- [broken link]

To accusations that "Howl" is a negative and destructive poem, Ginsberg
responded by saying:

"The title notwithstanding, the poem itself is an act of sympathy, not
rejection. In it I am leaping out of a preconceived notion of social 'values',
following my own heart's instincts - allowing myself to follow my own heart's
instincts, overturning any notion of propriety, moral 'value', superficial
'maturity', Trilling-esque sense of 'civilization', and exposing my true
feelings - of sympathy and identification with the rejected, mystical,
individual, even 'mad'.

"Howl is the first discovery as far as communication of feeling and truth, that
I made. It begins with a catalogue sympathetically and humanely describing
excesses of feeling and idealization."

"Only if you are thinking an outmoded dualistic puritanical academic theory
ridden world of values can you fail to see I am talking about realization of
love. LOVE."

"To call it work of nihilistic rebellion would be to mistake it completely. Its
force comes from positive religious belief and experience. It offers no
'constructive' program in sociological terms - no poem could. It does offer a
constructive human value - basically the experience - of the enlightment of
mystical experience - without which no society can long exist."

    -- [broken link]


This, by the way, is one poem that I'd _strongly_ advise you to read out loud.

Ripple -- Robert Hunter

Martin's off on vacation, so I'm taking over for him... I'll start with a poem
from a most un-Martinish source: The Grateful Dead's
(Poem #292) Ripple
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

     Ripple in still water
     When there is no pebble tossed
     Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

     Ripple in still water
     When there is no pebble tossed
     Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
-- Robert Hunter
from the album 'American Beauty', 1970.


The first verse, addressing the listener, is about song, about listening to the
song and making it your own. Hunter begins the verse by invoking the elements of
song: words and tune, so that the listener is prepared to think about the song.
The poet expresses concern that the song be sung by other people, opening up a
discussion of the relationship between the singer and the listener, who will
also, it is hoped, come to be the singer, in turn. So the relationship between
poet and reader is unity; they are both the poet. In this way, the original poet
breaks out of mortality, since his thoughts will continue to generate new

The next verse continues this theme, but points out that the identification
between singer and listener can never be total, since it is questionable whether
any of the original poet's thoughts will actually occur to the person who is now
singing the song. But the poet concludes that even though 'the thoughts are
broken,' it is worthwhile to have songs.

The chorus is the main puzzle of the song, as highlighted by the title. It is
set apart formally from the rest of the song, being a seventeen-syllable haiku.
Following the first two verses, it suggests that thought is like a ripple, not
caused by anything, and doomed to be fleeting, not to be held. Hunter chose an
Asian verse form to express this idea, which is contrary to Western
civilization's principle of logical, rational thought: it is not worthwhile to
believe that reason can be imposed on thinking, or that anything reasonable can
come from thinking, since communication of thought will always be flawed.

The next two verses introduce new themes. The first contains a benediction,
wishing the listener a "full cup," or a happy life. This cup, moreover, can be
refilled at a fountain which, since it was not made by human hands, represents a
cosmic or universal level of being. The next verse takes the song from the
universal back to the individual. The path between dawn (birth) and dark (death)
is a metaphor for life, each life being individual.

The chorus follows, and in this context the ripple has become a symbol of an
individual life, caused by nothing a disappearing back into still water, back
into the fountain not made by people. A life is a ripple. All life is still
water. The chorus, then, is interpreted differently each time. The first time a
ripple is a thought in an individual mind; the second time a ripple is an
individual life in the pool of universal life.

The final verse conveys optimistic hopelessness. The poet is compassionate, as
shown by the last line, but wants us to realize that there are no guarantees
about life.

    -- David Dodd, [broken link]


'still water' and 'if your cup be empty' both seem to be references
to Psalm 23, poem #218

'You who choose to lead must follow'
cf. Mark, Chapter 10, vv. 43 and 44:
    "...and whosoever would be first among you must be slave of all."
and also a passage from the Tao te Ching:
    "Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
    One must in one's words humble oneself before them
    And, desiring to lead the people,
    One must, in one's person, follow behind them."

'that path is for your steps alone'
compare with this quote from Whitman's "Song of Myself" (46):
    "Not I--not anyone else, can travel that road for you,
    You must travel it for yourself."


Psalm 23: poem #218

An _extremely_ detailed essay on 'Ripple', with line-by-line annotations, can be
found at [broken link]

David Dodd maintains the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics page at

The Journey of the Magi -- T S Eliot

Continuing the theme...
(Poem #291) The Journey of the Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
-- T S Eliot
A poem about Eliot's own journey from agnosticism to faith; he wrote it around
the time of his baptism and acceptance into the Anglican Church, in 1927.



First Five Lines: The first five lines were "lifted from Lancelot Andrewes's
Nativity Sermon of 1622, and modified"; Eliot happened to be himself steeped in
Andrewes at the time . . . but basically he used them because he needed a second
voice to precipitate the poetic drama. They must be understood as being read by,
or to, the magus and thereby occasioning his own flow of memory.

Temperate valley: Dean points out that the early morning descent into a
"temperate valley" evokes three significant Christian events: "The nativity and
all the attendant ideas of the dawning of a new era . . . the empty tomb of
Easter . . . as well the image of the Second Coming and the return of Christ
from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness". Wohlpart adds
that the Magi's dawn arrival is "symbolic of the new life attained from their

Satisfactory: R. D. Brown writes that "the obvious meaning [of the word
"satisfactory"] is 'expiatory,' payment for a debt or sin". Barbour, however,
sees a more complex connotation: "The parenthetical remark/gesture dramatizes a
certain drawing back at the end into something between understatement and
velleity. The key word is the ambiguous 'satisfactory,' emphasized by rhythm and
position, which for us, though not the magus, evokes the Thirty Nine Articles,
expiation, and the Atonement". In addition, E. F. Burgess sees the word
"satisfactory" as evidence that "every condition of prophecy was met, leaving
the alienated magus . . . stranded, suspended between the realization and the
consummation of God's plan".

    -- from ; more
material on-site.

'Three trees' is a reference to the the three crosses on Calvary, while 'Six
hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver' recalls both the Roman
soldiers gambling over Jesus' robes and the price of Judas' betrayal.


The T. S. Eliot mailing list is a forum for a _lot_ of discussion and
commentary, much of it very well-informed. The archives are available at
[broken link] ; there's also a neat concordance and search

Previous Eliot poems to have featured on the Minstrels include
La Figlia Che Piange - poem #9
Preludes I - poem #107 (with a bio)
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - poem #193 .
Sweeney Among the Nightingales - poem #248
and Macavity the Mystery Cat - poem #258

And of course, you can read all our previous poems at

Bed in Summer -- Robert Louis Stevenson

(Poem #290) Bed in Summer
  In winter I get up at night
  And dress by yellow candle-light.
  In summer quite the other way,
  I have to go to bed by day.

  I have to go to bed and see
  The birds still hopping on the tree,
  Or hear the grown-up people's feet
  Still going past me in the street.

  And does it not seem hard to you,
  When all the sky is clear and blue,
  And I should like so much to play,
  To have to go to bed by day?
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
A touch of nostalgia today - this poem charmed and enchanted me when I was a
child, with its hints of faraway lands and strange conditions. A funny
thing, though, was that while I could quote the first two verses from
memory, the very existence of the third came as a surprise to me. Nor was it
a pleasant surprise - while verses one and two have a delightful air of
bemusement, the last verse is, to put it quite frankly, whiny. It's
especially sad since the second verse would have been a fine (if somewhat
abrupt) ending, and left the whole a good (if not great) children's poem.

On the other hand, it is still a pretty nice poem, if a very 'children's'
one - the images manage to be quite evocative without being descriptive, and
the rhythms are satisfyingly strong and regular (something that matters a
lot when  you're a child - take a glance through any ten popular nursery
rhymes). I think Stevenson's fault at the end was an attempt to identify
with his audience; one that, quite sadly, misfired.


Notes: From 'A Child's Garden of Verses', the first poem in the book, in

For a far better poem from the same source, see 'From a Railway Carriage'
poem #84

And  for the complete 'A Child's Garden of Verses', a set of XLI poems
ranging from the amazingly painful to the truly delightful, see
[broken link]

The Second Coming -- William Butler Yeats

And as Y2K draws near...
(Poem #289) The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-- William Butler Yeats
from Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921.

A rather nightmarish vision of the Apocalypse - it sends shivers down my spine.



There's been a lot of Yeats done on this list:

'The Song of Wandering Aengus' was the very first poem I ever sent out, almost a
year ago - poem #1

'Sailing to Byzantium' - poem #21
- and 'Byzantium' - poem #60 are
masterpieces of dense, evocative imagery.

Universally beloved are 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death' - poem #32
- and 'The Ballad of Father Gilligan' - poem #237

My all-time favourite Yeats poem (and one of my favourite poems ever) is 'Red
Hanrahan's Song about Ireland' - poem #79

Futility -- Wilfred Owen

Guest poem sent in by Vijay Victor
(Poem #288) Futility
 Move him into the sun--
 Gently its touch awoke him once,
 At home, whispering of fields unsown.
 Always it awoke him, even in France,
 Until this morning and this snow.
 If anything might rouse him now
 The kind old sun will know.

 Think how it wakes the seeds--
 Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
 Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
 Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
 Was it for this the clay grew tall?
 --O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
 To break earth's sleep at all?
-- Wilfred Owen
   I feel this poem, more specifically, the last five lines epitomises
futility. I like the way he evokes contrasting sensations using the images
of sun (warmth) and snow (cold). "Cold star" is ultimate!

  "The kind old sun ... whispering of fields unsown" also "wakes the
seeds". Owen seems to be getting us to empathise with the 'benevolent'
sun. I can even feel sorry that all his work was of no avail.

  Further, i feel his description of the creation of man ('clay grew tall')
captures the essence of the act far better than any painting i have ever
seen.(i'm sure many would beg to disagree here but still). Much more can be
said i guess but i requested higher authorities to do that.


[Vijay asked me to interject a few comments about the form of the poem - I
wasn't intending to, since (as I must reemphasise) this is not about
critical analysis of the poems, it's about personal response and
appreciation. Still, I couldn't not comment on Owen's use of half-rhymes[1]
- especially interesting in the last three lines of each verse, where the
middle line is tied in to the surrounding two without the choppy effect that
a pure ccc rhyme scheme would have had.

[1] 'consonance' if you want a more technical-sounding term, but it's
considerably weaker a word

m. ]

Mad About You -- Gordon Matthew 'Sting' Sumner

(Poem #287) Mad About You
A stone's throw from Jerusalem
I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight
And though a million stars were shining
My heart was lost on a distant planet
That whirls around the April moon
Whirling in an arc of sadness
I'm lost without you, I'm lost without you

    Though all my kingdoms turn to sand and fall into the sea
    I'm mad about you, I'm mad about you

And from the dark secluded valleys
I heard the ancient songs of sadness
But every step I thought of you
Every footstep only you
Every star a grain of sand
The leavings of a dried up ocean
Tell me, how much longer,
How much longer?

They say a city in the desert lies
The vanity of an ancient king
But the city lies in broken pieces
Where the wind howls and the vultures sing
These are the works of man
This is the sum of our ambition
It would make a prison of my life
If you became another's wife

    With every prison blown to dust, my enemies walk free
    I'm mad about you, I'm mad about you

And I have never in my life
Felt more alone than I do now
Although I claim dominions over all I see
It means nothing to me
There are no victories
In all our histories
Without love

A stone's throw from Jerusalem
I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight
And though a million stars were shining
My heart was lost on a distant planet
That whirls around the April moon
Whirling in an arc of sadness
I'm lost without you, I'm lost without you

    And though you hold the keys to ruin of everything I see
    With every prison blown to dust, my enemies walk free
    Though all my kingdoms turn to sand and fall into the sea
    I'm mad about you, I'm mad about you.
-- Gordon Matthew 'Sting' Sumner
As I pointed out the last time I did a Sting piece, it's difficult (and indeed,
unfair) to judge musical lyrics using the same yardstick as for 'ordinary'
poetry. For one thing, songwriters operate under far stricter constraints than
even the most metrical of poets, because they have to fit their words to the
'mood' [1] of the accompanying music; at the same time, when their lyrics are
reproduced on the printed page, they lose the wealth of detail and emotional
content provided by performance. It's a no-win situation.

Having said that, there are still a few lyricists who stand out. Dylan, Cohen,
Springsteen and Simon are the obvious examples, but I have a soft corner for the
troika of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Suzanne Vega. And I like Sting.

As far 'Mad About You' goes... well, I suggest you read the poem, then try to
get a hold of the album ('The Soul Cages, 1991) and give it a listen. Then
reread the poem. The difference will stagger you.


[1] An undefined and undefinable term, if ever I saw one.

[Minstrels Links]

I've done Sting before, the densely textured 'Soul Cages', at poem #114

Other musicians to have featured on this list include Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen
and of course Bob Dylan; you can read their work (and much much more) at the
Minstrels website,

[Random Meanderings]

Have you ever wondered how we select our poems, gentle reader? Scroll down...

Yesterday's would-be Ozymandias was what reminded me of this poem; Sting's
        'They say a city in the desert lies
        The vanity of an ancient king'
resonates both with Shelley's famous
                'Round the decay
        Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
        The lone and level sands stretch far away.
and with Horace Smith's somewhat less accomplished
                'The city's gone!
        Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
        The sight of that forgotten Babylon.'

By a happy coincidence, 'a stone's throw from Jerusalem' fits in nicely with a
poem I'm going to run next week (a poem which I've been planning to do for some
time now - you'll see why when I run it). That poem in turn is part of a
Christmas / New Year's theme which will inform my choices in the days to come.

Yes, I have a convoluted mind :-).

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog -- Oliver Goldsmith

(Poem #286) An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog
  Good people all, of every sort,
  Give ear unto my song;
  And if you find it wondrous short,
  It cannot hold you long.

  In Islington there was a man,
  Of whom the world might say
  That still a godly race he ran,
  Whene'er he went to pray.

  A kind and gentle heart he had,
  To comfort friends and foes;
  The naked every day he clad,
  When he put on his clothes.

  And in that town a dog was found,
  As many dogs there be,
  Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
  And curs of low degree.

  This dog and man at first were friends;
  But when a pique began,
  The dog, to gain some private ends,
  Went mad and bit the man.

  Around from all the neighbouring streets
  The wondering neighbours ran,
  And swore the dog had lost his wits,
  To bite so good a man.

  The wound it seemed both sore and sad
  To every Christian eye;
  And while they swore the dog was mad,
  They swore the man would die.

  But soon a wonder came to light,
  That showed the rogues they lied:
  The man recovered of the bite,
  The dog it was that died.
-- Oliver Goldsmith
Another wonderfully cutting poem, the irony being all the better for being
understated. The verse, likewise, has a deliberately simple rhythm to it, an
appeal to 'popularity' established by the first stanza, where the narrator
is cast into the mould of storyteller rather than 'high' poet.

Of course, the poem itself is clear enough, and its central character
practically a stereotype, but there's apparently more to it than that -
according to the Dictionary of Sensibility,

  The dog, as we know, is Friedrich Nietzsche; [...] a figure of
  sensibility, the mad philosopher/prophet/poet who either heals or infects
  the community.

Well, I didn't know, but I'll take their word for it. It goes on to explain
the bite as an act that 'exposes the community's belief in the harmlessness
of corruption'. Read the whole theory at
[broken link]


Biography and Assessment:

 Goldsmith, Oliver

  b. Nov. 10, 1730, Kilkenny West, County Westmeath, Ire.
  d. April 4, 1774, London

  The son of an Irish clergyman, he was graduated from Trinity College,
  Dublin, in 1749. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leiden, but his
  career as a physician was quite unsuccessful. In 1756 he settled in
  London, where he achieved some success as a miscellaneous contributor to
  periodicals and as the author of Enquiry into the Present State of Polite
  Learning in Europe (1759). But it was not until The Citizen of the World
  (1762), a series of whimsical and satirical essays, that he was recognized
  as an able man of letters. His fame grew with The Traveler (1764), a
  philosophic poem, and the nostalgic pastoral The Deserted Village (1770).
  However, his literary reputation rests on his two comedies, The
  Good-natur'd Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and his only
  novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). His comedies injected a much-needed
  sense of realism into the dull, sentimental plays of the period. They are
  lively, witty, and imbued with an endearing humanity. The Vicar of
  Wakefield is the warm, humorous, if somewhat melodramatic, story of a
  country parson and his family. Although he earned a great deal of money in
  his lifetime, Goldsmith's improvidence kept him poor. Boswell depicted him
  as a ridiculous, blundering, but tenderhearted and generous creature. He
  had the friendship of many of the literary and artistic great of his day,
  the most notable being that of Samuel Johnson.

        -- Columbia Encyclopedia

 Goldsmith's rise from total obscurity was a matter of only a few years. He
 worked as an apothecary's assistant, school usher, physician, and as a hack
 writer--reviewing, translating, and compiling. It remains amazing that this
 young Irish vagabond, unknown, uncouth, unlearned, and unreliable, was yet
 able within a few years to climb from obscurity to mix with aristocrats and
 the intellectual elite of London. Such a rise was possible because
 Goldsmith had one quality, soon noticed by booksellers and the public, that
 his fellow literary hacks did not possess--the gift of a graceful, lively,
 and readable style.


 When Oliver Goldsmith died he had achieved eminence among the writers of
 his time as an essayist, a poet, and a dramatist. He was one "who left
 scarcely any kind of writing untouched and who touched nothing that he did
 not adorn"--such was the judgment expressed by his friend Dr. Johnson. His
 contemporaries were as one in their high regard for Goldsmith the writer,
 but they were of different minds concerning the man himself. He was, they
 all agreed, one of the oddest personalities of his time.


 Goldsmith's success as a writer lay partly in the charm of personality
 emanated by his style--his affection for his characters, his mischievous
 irony, and his spontaneous interchange of gaiety and sadness. He was, as a
 writer, "natural, simple, affecting." It is by their human personalities
 that his novel and his plays succeed, not by any brilliance of plot, ideas,
 or language. In the poems again it is the characters that are remembered
 rather than the landscapes--the village parson, the village schoolmaster,
 the sharp, yet not unkindly portraits of Garrick and Burke. Goldsmith's
 poetry lives by its own special softening and mellowing of the traditional
 heroic couplet into simple melodies that are quite different in character
 from the solemn and sweeping lines of 18th-century blank verse. In his
 novel and plays Goldsmith helped to humanize his era's literary
 imagination, without growing sickly or mawkish. Goldsmith saw people, human
 situations, and indeed the human predicament from the comic point of view;
 he was a realist, something of a satirist, but in his final judgments
 unfailingly charitable.

        -- EB