Monday, March 27, 2017

Tears, Idle Tears

This morning I had an experience which I've often had before, and which is (potentially) embarrassing; being brought to tears by some lines of poetry. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever actually noticed when this happens. And let it be understood that I'm not bawling uncontrollably-- it's more a case of my eyes welling up with tears.

Invariably, it's the memory of some lines of poetry that does this. Poetry rarely has its most powerful impact on us when we first read it. It has to seep into our minds, to become a part of us.

Here is how it happened this morning (as I was on the bus, and walking from the bus to work). I was thinking of an idea for a poem that I might write, but probably won't; a poem inspired by the always-poignant sight of children's abandoned toys or games, and how this makes all human artefacts and memorials seem child-like and innocent to me. 

Then I remembered Michael Hartnett's "Death of an Irishwoman". It's available on several places on the internet so I hope his estate won't come after me for including it in full here:

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnet:

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

The two lines that reduce me to tears are "she was a song that nobody sings" and the final line: "She was a child's purse, full of useless things."

I think "a child's purse, full of useless things" might sum up my social and cultural philosophy-- although, as I've said before, "curtains make a house a home" might also serve the purpose.

There are many lines of poetry that move me like this. These lines from Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur" also bring me to tears. They are the dying King Arthur's reproach to his last knight, who has refused to throw his sword Excalibur into the lake:
Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widowed of the power in his eye
That bowed the will.

"Authority forgets a dying king" makes me feel as though my heart is going to break.

The parable of the Prodigal Son does this to me too. Every time it is read at Mass, I have to hide my face, especially at the line where the father comes out to greet his son, and the words "Everything I have is yours"-- the latter spoken, of course, to the other son; but, as Pope Benedict pointed out, we are each of us both of the sons, and the parable might be more accurately called the Parable of the Two Brothers. Being a traditionalist, however, I prefer the usual title.

(Incidentally, have you ever noticed how often Jesus's parables bypass moral reasoning, and speak straight to the heart? And yet they seem unanswerable.)


  1. The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
    This Eastertide call into mind the men,
    Now far from home, who with their sweethearts should
    Have gathered them and will do never again.

    That one does the same thing to me. (It is 'Easter, 1915' - Edward Thomas). See also Masefield's 'Paddington: Mother and Son' and Elizabeth Jennings' 'Losing and Finding'.

    Yes, it's the memory of lines, particularly at apposite moments, that springs the ambush. Also the skewering effect of certain words that had foiled the reader by seeming unassuming at first: the way Thomas slips in the word 'left', for instance, and simply the word 'full' in Harnett's poem.

    And the surprise of contrasts: Thomas inverts Easter so that where we all know the unexpected absence of Christ's body means the presence of a resurrected Saviour, the unusual presence of flowers in the woods in 1915 is a sign of a terrible, irrevocable absence.

    This involves sleight of hand but that isn't all it is. Being clever isn't enough. It has to ring with truth. It's a hard calling, the poet's art.

    1. I think it's a very individual response. I can see how brilliantly written Thomas's stanza is, and indeed I find it affecting, and I think your analysis of its subtlety is very good, but it doesn't actually move me to tears.

      Larkin's MCMXIV, on the other hand, is a poem on the same subject which ALWAYS brings tears:

      Never such innocence,
      Never before or since,
      As changed itself to past
      Without a word – the men
      Leaving the gardens tidy,
      The thousands of marriages,
      Lasting a little while longer:
      Never such innocence again.

      "lasting a little while longer" may be the operative words here-- as well as the last line itself.

    2. And, as I've mentioned to you before, some lines that don't actually make me cry, but which do make me feel as though my heart is going to break, have the unlikely provenance of Flanders and Swann, in their song "Slow Train":

      The Sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate
      No passenger waits on Chittening platform or Cheslyn Hay.
      No one departs, no one arrives
      From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives
      They've all passed out of our lives
      On the slow train...

      It's the line "no one departs, no one arrives" that gets me there. For a moment, it feels unbearable.

    3. Ah, yes, THAT one. "Established names on the sunblinds".

      Yes, you're right that it varies. I find the despairing shrugging of Betjeman's 'The Old Liberals' deeply beautiful, for some reason. Maybe I'll never know why. His answers to his own rather fanciful question 'Where are the free folk of England? Where are they?' are both ironic and deadly serious (I'm not even sure that's right):

      Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
      Down into denser suburbs. The birch lets go
      But one brown leaf upon browner bracken below.
      Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
      To still, ripe scent of the fungus and wet woods weeping.
      Ask at the fish and chips in the Market Square.
      Here amid firs and a final sunset flare
      Recorder and hautbois only moan at a mouldering sky.

    4. I agree, but I can't think of Betjeman now without a sense of annoyance that his publishers wanted to charge me eighty pounds for quoting four lines from "Original Sin on the Sussex Coast". I decided I could do without it.

    5. Really? Were those the lines about the Devil being certain as the sun behind the Downs? That's a little extortionate, even for Betjeman's works.

    6. And that Flanders and Swann song has moved me since I was little, not just because of my interest in railways (though it made me the loather of motorways I am today). All the names of the stations were real, as well!

    7. It's a classic! I encountered it at a much later stage of my life than you, though.

      I got into Flanders and Swann through hearing "the Gnu Song" by complete chance on Ireland's Lyric FM (a classical channel-- one of my intermittent efforts to get into classical music).

    8. Funnily enough, that's one I only came to know later. The ingenious weaving of words and music and narrative, all in the service of humour. It's exactly what tickles me. Do you know the gas man one? "He couldn't reach the fuse-box without standing on the bin, / And his foot went through the window, so I called the glazier in". Sorry, we seem to have arrived at the opposite of your original topic!

    9. I never liked that one, for some reason. I like a comic song to be BOTH comic and have a certain poetry to it-- the Gnu Song does that, as does Have Some Madeira, M'Dear, or the Hippo Song. But not so much wit the Gas Man Cometh, the Wampum, and others that I find funny but not poetic.

    10. Are there any lines more English and cosy than these lines from the Gnu Song:

      I had taken furnished lodgings down at Rustington-on-sea
      Whence I travelled on to Aston-under-lyne...

    11. No, I suppose not! The poetry of the Gas Man could be said to be that it comes full circle. Other than that it is musical slapstick - but meticulous musical slapstick. But I know what you mean about poetry. The Honeysuckle and the Bindweed's another one like that.