I’ve been immersed in PERL for the past week, and feeling pretty sick of computers once I get home. The family business I work for has a sideline building websites, so every so often I have to take some time out from dental work to do some programming. The current project’s nothing to write home about: a simple MySQL database with a PERL DBI and CGI interface, which powers a small on-line shop; but it’s nice to stretch my spodding legs a bit and reacquaint myself with the ridiculously convoluted sets of brackets that characterise an HTML short-cut using CGI.pm.

Today, however, I have some poems to work on while the ideas are still fresh in my mind, and possibly some older pieces to render less embarrassing. This means that poetry and its uses as an excuse for procrastination are once again on my mind, and the long-delayed Monday poetry slot can at last be filled.

First up is Andrew Marvell (1621-78), whose impressions of a garden had been coloured by living through the English Civil War (1641-51). Apart from dress uniforms and painful arterial red, the bright colours have departed from soldiering; but if you’ve seen Buck House when the guard changes, you can probably follow Marvell’s drift. He returns to this theme in his longer and more famous piece The Garden, which opens with a wry consideration of the horticultural iconography of military decorations that Europe inherited from the Romans. This is implied in the piece that follows, when he refers to garlands of roses, as opposed to triumphant laurel or oak leaves.

A Garden

Written after the Civil Wars

See how the flowers, as at parade,
Under their colours stand display’d:
Each regiment in order grows,
That of the tulip, pink, and rose.
But when the vigilant patrol
Of stars walks round about the pole,
Their leaves, that to the stalks are curl’d,
Seem to their staves the ensigns furl’d.
Then in some flower’s beloved hut
Each bee, as sentinel, is shut,
And sleeps so too; but if once stirr’d,
She runs you through, nor asks the word.
O thou, that dear and happy Isle,
The garden of the world erewhile,
Thou Paradise of the four seas
Which Heaven planted us to please,
But, to exclude the world, did guard
With wat’ry if not flaming sword;
What luckless apple did we taste
To make us mortal and thee waste!
Unhappy! shall we never more
That sweet militia restore,
When gardens only had their towers,
And all the garrisons were flowers;
When roses only arms might bear,
And men did rosy garlands wear?

It’s been nearly four-hundred years, and we’re still singing the same threnody that Marvell plays here. As Nicol Williamson‘s Merlin has it: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Continuing the recurrent theme of depressing thoughts, I give you Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), on the subject of silent grief and unwritten poetry.

The Voiceless

WE count the broken lyres that rest
Where the sweet wailing singers slumber,
But o’er their silent sister’s breast
The wild-flowers who will stoop to number?
A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy Fame is proud to win them;
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!

Nay, grieve not for the dead alone
Whose song has told their hearts’ sad story;
Weep for the voiceless, who have known
The cross without the crown of glory!
Not where Leucadian breezes sweep
O’er Sappho’s memory-haunted billow;
But where the glistening night-dews weep 15
On nameless sorrow’s churchyard pillow.

O hearts that break and give no sign
Save whitening lip and fading tresses,
Till Death pours out his cordial wine
Slow-dropped from Misery’s crushing presses!
If singing breath or echoing chord
To every hidden pang were given,
What endless melodies were poured,
As sad as earth, as sweet as heaven!

I like a good ghost story and a stirring naval yarn as much as the next man, so this poem has been a favourite of mine since I was a teenager. It’s too long to quote in its entirety, so I’ll confine myself to linking to The Legend of Hamilton Tighe by Richard Harris Barham (1785-1845).

A page from the Liber Exoniensis, featuring the opening lines of Widsith

A page from the Liber Exoniensis, featuring the opening lines of 'Widsith'

Modern poetry is all well and good, but it’s churlish to ignore the roots of English verse. A thousand years before Barham, Englishmen were already composing poetry in their own language and meter, and it stands up well against the contributions of the modern age. The next selection is a riddle poem from one of the most important Old English verse collections, the Liber Exoniensis (pictured above). As its name suggests, it has a local connexion. Leofric, Bishop of Crediton and St. Germans, moved his episcopal seat to Exeter in 1050 and set about reforming the cathedral administration. One of the many gifts he bestowed on the new cathedral was “mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisan geworht” (“a large English book about various things, written in verse [lit. ‘song-wise’]”), which he donated in 1072. Many of the riddle poems in the Exeter Book are humorous; some are downright bawdy, but I’ve chosen one of the cleaner examples. It concerns the bibliophile’s most implacable foe. The title is a modern addition, which I’ve used purely because I’m a bit of a bookworm myself. The layout is also modern: the manuscript form of the riddles is exactly the same as that of prose, but they’re not as easy to read when so presented.

Riddle #47: Bookworm

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

A moth ate words. It seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder:
that the worm swallowed down some man’s speech –
a thief in the darkness – glorious discourse
and that mighty thing’s foundation. The thieving visitor was not
at all the wiser when he swallowed the words.

Here we have a playful comparison between the unthinking bookworm that eats vellum and the ignorant reader, who devours the text without learning anything. This is surely a dig at those who can’t solve the riddle. It’s also quite probable that the fulsome praise heaped upon the lost words is satirical. We have very few examples of the Anglo-Saxons being intellectually playful, and the Exeter Book riddles make a refreshing change from the more familiar elegiac, religious and heroic poetry of their era.

That’s it for the poetry, but since I’ve left you hanging on for so long without an update I’ll throw in a song free of charge. This one seems to be about an oppressed narrator’s fantasies of bloody vengeance, but it could refer to any unlikely but earnestly desired occurrence. I don’t care what all the Napster fans say: Metallica are great. The video tells a good story too.