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Song at the Year's Turning -- R S Thomas

New Year's Day guest poem sent in by Manan
(Poem #1135) Song at the Year's Turning
 Shelley dreamed it. Now the dream decays.
 The props crumble; the familiar ways
 Are stale with tears trodden underfoot.
 The heart's flower withers at the root.
 Bury it then, in history's sterile dust.
 The slow years shall tame your tawny lust.

 Love deceived him; what is there to say
 The mind brought you by a better way
 To this despair? Lost in the world's wood
 You cannot stanch the bright menstrual blood.
 The earth sickens; under naked boughs
 The frost comes to barb your broken vows.

 Is there blessing? Light's peculiar grace
 In cold splendour robes this tortured place
 For strange marriage. Voices in the wind
 Weave a garland where a mortal sinned.
 Winter rots you; who is there to blame?
 The new grass shall purge you in its flame.
-- R S Thomas
I cannot help but think of this poem every time the New Year
comes around. It's in Thomas' old style, which he later
abandoned for a more free-verse kind of approach. What
astounds me most about Thomas' poetry is his ability to
conjure up metaphors seemingly at will.
I guess I'll leave it that.


In the Poppy Field -- James Stephens

(Poem #1134) In the Poppy Field
 Mad Patsy said, he said to me,
 That every morning he could see
 An angel walking on the sky;
 Across the sunny skies of morn
 He threw great handfuls far and nigh
 Of poppy seed among the corn;
 And then, he said, the angels run
 To see the poppies in the sun.

 A poppy is a devil weed,
 I said to him - he disagreed;
 He said the devil had no hand
 In spreading flowers tall and fair
 Through corn and rye and meadow land,
 by garth and barrow everywhere:
 The devil has not any flower,
 But only money in his power.

 And then he stretched out in the sun
 And rolled upon his back for fun:
 He kicked his legs and roared for joy
 Because the sun was shining down:
 He said he was a little boy
 And would not work for any clown:
 He ran and laughed behind a bee,
 And danced for very ecstasy.
-- James Stephens
While browsing through the favourite poems collection at
[broken link], I was surprised to
see this unknown and rather trivial-seeming poem rubbing shoulders with the
likes of Tennyson's Eagle and Coleridge's Kubla Khan. The anthologist's
prepended note explained the poem's inclusion, saying that it was the
*happiest* poem he knew - and while I was initially unconvinced, by the time
I had finished reading the poem, sure enough, I couldn't resist a smile.

It's hard to say just what makes this such a cheerful poem. It's not just
the air of breezy exuberance - there's a charmingly innocent tone to it that
reminds me of St. Exupery's "The Little Prince", an unaffected and altogether
unselfconscious delight in life's pleasures that is a joy to read. It's also
a very Irish poem, although it's hard to say exactly what I mean by that.


p.s. And don't miss the interesting (aabcbcdd) rhyme scheme


  Biography of Stephens:`

  See also
    [broken link]

  A collection of links (from

  We've run some of Stephens's translations before:
    Poem #171
    Poem #185 (see also [broken link]

Death News -- Allen Ginsberg

(Poem #1133) Death News
"Visit to W.C.W. circa 1957, poets Kerouac Corso Orlovsky on sofa in living
room inquired wise words, stricken Williams pointed thru window curtained
on Main Street: "There's a lot of bastards out there!"

 Walking at night on asphalt campus
 road by the German Instructor with Glasses
 W. C. Williams is dead he said in accent
 under the trees in Benares; I stopped and asked
 Williams is Dead? Enthusiastic and wide-eyed
 under the Big Dipper. Stood on the Porch
 of the International House Annex bungalow
 insects buzzing round the electric light
 reading the Medical obituary in "Time".
 "out among the sparrows behind the shutters"
 Williams is in the Big Dipper. He isn't dead
 as the many pages of words arranged thrill
 with his intonations the mouths of meek kids
 becoming subtle even in Bengal. Thus
 there's a life moving out of his pages; Blake
 also "alive" thru his experienced machines.
 Were his last words anything Black out there
 in the carpeted bedroom of the gabled wood house
 in Rutherford? Wonder what he said,
 or was there anything left in realms of speech
 after the stroke & brain-thrill doom entered
 his thoughts? If I pray to his soul in Bardo Thodol
 he may hear the unexpected vibration of foreign mercy.
 Quietly unknown for three weeks; now I saw Passaic
 and Ganges one, consenting his devotion,
 because he walked on the steely bank & prayed
 to a Goddess in the river, that he only invented,
 another Ganga-Ma. Riding on the old
 rusty Holland submarine on the ground floor
 Paterson Museum instead of a celestial crocodile.
 Mourn O Ye Angels of the Left Wing! that the poet
 of the streets is a skeleton under the pavement now
 and there's no other old soul so kind and meek
 and feminine jawed and him-eyed can see you
 What you wanted to be among the bastards out there.

 Benares, March 20, 1963"
-- Allen Ginsberg
Call me morbid, but some of my favourite poems are poems written by one
poet about the death of another (Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"
[Poem #50] or Shelley's Adonais or Wilbur's Cottage Street, 1953
[] - to name but a few) - and
this one ranks right up there. Part of it, of course, is just Williams and
the way for me his persona looms over this poem, so that Ginsberg's amazed
repetition of the line "Williams is dead" becomes an echo of my own sudden
sense of loss. But I also love the way Ginsberg moves from the
conversational to the elegaic (from "walking at night on asphalt campus
road" to "Mourn O Ye Angels of the Left Wing!") taking us step by step
through the experience of William's death.

And then, of course, there is Ginsberg himself - the merciless grit-jaw
voice of the greatest of the Beat poets; the Whitmanesque flavour of the
words as they roll of your tongue, the sense of desolation so lucid, so
clear-eyed; the terrible jazz of his poetry its own willing narcotic. And
of course, the ability to throw in that one line, that single phrase that
is so right you can never forget it ("kind and meek and feminine jawed and
him-eyed" - having read him can you really picture WC Williams any other
way?). It almost makes up for all those bastards.


if everything happens that can't be done (LIV) -- e e cummings

Guest poem sent in by Kimbol Soques
(Poem #1132) if everything happens that can't be done (LIV)
 if everything happens that can't be done
 (and anything's righter
 than books
 could plan)
 the stupidest teacher will almost guess
 (with a run
 around we go yes)
 there's nothing as something as one

 one hasn't a why or because or although
 (and buds know better
 than books
 don't grow)
 one's anything old being everything new
 (with a what
 around we go who)
 one's everyanything so

 so world is a leaf is a tree is a bough
 (and birds sing sweeter
 than books
 tell how)
 so here is away and so your is a my
 (with a down
 around again fly)
 forever was never till now

 now i love you and you love me
 (and books are shutter
 than books
 can be)
 and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
 (with a shout
 around we go all)
 there's somebody calling who's we

 we're everything brighter than even the sun
 (we're everything greater
 than books
 might mean)
 we're everyanything more than believe
 (with a spin
 alive we're alive)
 we're wonderful one times one
-- e e cummings
Pretty format:

My comments:
I've always had a strong urge to play ring-around-the-rosy while reading
this because of the strong rhythm (dare I say 'meter'?) and the second
parenthetical sections in each stanza.  Physically it's one of Cummings'
easier poems to read -- or stick in an email, for that matter.  At the same
time it has many of his hallmark constructions - "everyanything", odd syntax
("deep in the high that does nothing but fall"), and striking free verse

The last stanza is my favorite, and brings me back time & again.  I
especially like the closing "one times one" -- an effective description of
the 'two become one' idea behind marriage (and many love affairs), carrying
the idea of multiplication while still emphasizing unity.


Adam's Complaint -- Denise Levertov

Guest poem sent in by Salima Virani
(Poem #1131) Adam's Complaint
 Some people,
 no matter what you give them,
 still want the moon.

 The bread,
 the salt,
 white meat and dark,
 still hungry.

 The marriage bed
 and the cradle,
 still empty arms.

 You give them land,
 their own earth under their feet,
 still they take to the roads.

 And water: dig them the deepest well,
 still it's not deep enough
 to drink the moon from.
-- Denise Levertov

This is one of those poems that is neither complimentary not critical.  I
love its matter-of-fact tone that almost shrugs and says 'that's just the
way we are'.  And for being so, it does not praise and neither does it
condemn.  So someone like me, who can so relate to this is left wondering if
that's something I should be proud of..or ashamed of.

If this poem were a question posed to me or an allegation made at me..then
in my defence I would only say this, so beautifully captured by Yevgeny

"No, I'll not take the half"

No, I'll not take the half,
Give me the whole sky! The far-flung earth!
Seas and rivers and mountain avalanches--
All these are mine! I'll accept no less!

No, life, you cannot woo me with a part.
Let it be all or nothing! I can shoulder that!
I don't want happiness by halves,
Nor is half of sorrow what I want.

Yet there's a pillow I would share,
Where gently pressed against a cheek,
Like a helpless star, a falling star,
A ring glimmers on a finger of your hand.

  -- Yevgeny Yevtushenko


Denise Levertov [1923 - ]:  Denise Levertov was born on October 24, 1923 In
Ilford, Essex, England.  Her first collection of poetry, published in 1946 -
The Double Image - was not met with success. In 1957 she released Here and
Now and quickly followed with a collection entitled Overland to the Islands.
During the 1960's, this prolific writer created five more volumes of verse.

For more, go here:

Yevgeny Yevtushenko [1933 - ] Internationally best known poet of the
post-Stalin generation of Russian poets. His early poems show influence of
Mayakovsky and loyalty to communism, but with such work as The Third Snow
(1955). Yevtushenko became a spokesman for the young generation.

For more, go here:


Marginalia -- Billy Collins

Guest poem sent in by Fouzaan Zafar
(Poem #1130) Marginalia
 Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
 skirmishes against the author
 raging along the borders of every page
 in tiny black script.
 If I could just get my hands on you,
 Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
 they seem to say,
 I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

 Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
 "Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
 that kind of thing.
 I remember once looking up from my reading,
 my thumb as a bookmark,
 trying to imagine what the person must look like
 why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
 alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

 Students are more modest
 needing to leave only their splayed footprints
 along the shore of the page.
 One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
 Another notes the presence of "Irony"
 fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

 Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
 Hands cupped around their mouths.
 "Absolutely," they shout
 to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
 "Yes." "Bull's-eye." My man!"
 Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
 rain down along the sidelines.

 And if you have manage to graduate from college
 without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
 in a margin, perhaps now
 is the time to take one step forward.

 We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
 and reached for a pen if only to show
 we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
 we pressed a thought into the wayside,
 planted an impression along the verge.

 Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
 jotted along the borders of the Gospels
 brief asides about the pains of copying,
 a bird signing near their window,
 or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
 anonymous men catching a ride into the future
 on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

 And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
 they say, until you have read him
 enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

 Yet the one I think of most often,
 the one that dangles from me like a locket,
 was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
 I borrowed from the local library
 one slow, hot summer.
 I was just beginning high school then,
 reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
 and I cannot tell you
 how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
 how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
 when I found on one page

 A few greasy looking smears
 and next to them, written in soft pencil-
 by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
 whom I would never meet-
 "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."
-- Billy Collins
I was reading Martin's comment on Litany and thought I'd add one to the
minstrels' Billy Collins collection. I'm not sure if the comment is
outdated, but the other two Collins poems didn't have the title of
"Marginalia" so my quest became to make sure it was added.

Currently I'm a senior in high school studying Hamlet in my english
class and the poem's central theme of words written in the margins of
books is one that I find myself trapped in with my own personal copy of
Hamlet to take notes in. This coupled with the copy of Lord of the Flies
I happen to be reading (of course with comments by someone whose
handwriting leads me to believe they are a beautiful girl) make
Marginalia one to remember. I believe the essence of this poems stems
from its ability to make a personal connection with the reader,
accomplished through its numerous allusions and by addressing the reader
with "We have all seized the white perimeter...". And I can't help but
smile every time I read "Man vs. Nature."

I'm not really inclined to like poetry that lacks clear rhyme and meter
(I suspect this is due to my age) but the subtle genius of Collins
entices me like no other. Of course the last line is what takes your
breath away the first time you read it, but I particularly enjoy the
thought provoking imagery of "anonymous men catching a ride into the
future / on a vessel more lasting than themselves". Which ironically I
suppose we are all doing here.

Fouzaan Zafar

Farewell -- Agha Shahid Ali

Guest poem sent in by amulya gopalakrishnan
(Poem #1129) Farewell
 At a certain point I lost track of you.
 They make a desolation and call it peace.
 when you left even the stones were buried:
 the defenceless would have no weapons.

 When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks,
 who collects its fallen fleece from the slopes?
 O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished,
 who weighs the hairs on the jeweller's balance?
 They make a desolation and call it peace.
 Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?

 My memory is again in the way of your history.
 Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
 In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved- all
 winter- its crushed fennel.
 We can't ask them: Are you done with the world?

 In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's

 Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are found like this
 centuries later in this country
 I have stitched to your shadow?

 In this country we step out with doors in our arms
 Children run out with windows in their arms.
 You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
 if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.

 At a certain point I lost track of you.
 You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
 In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
 Your history gets in the way of my memory.
 I am everything you lost. You can't forgive me.
 I am everything you lost. Your perfect Enemy.
 Your memory gets in the way of my memory:

 I am being rowed through Paradise in a river of Hell:
 Exquisite ghost, it is night.

 The paddle is a heart; it breaks the porcelain waves.
 It is still night. The paddle is a lotus.
 I am rowed- as it withers-toward the breeze which is soft as
 if it had pity on me.

 If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn't
 have happened in the world?

 I'm everything you lost. You won't forgive me.
 My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
 There is nothing to forgive.You can't forgive me.
 I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.

 There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.

 If only somehow you could have been mine,
 what would not have been possible in the world?
-- Agha Shahid Ali
The first time I heard of Agha Shahid Ali was at a reading about 9/11,
where Amitav Ghosh read this poem from " A Country Without A Post
Office'. "His name means 'witness' and that is what he has been," said

But we do not witness things as they are. We witness them as we are.
Agha Shahid Ali's abiding themes were Kashmir, exile, loneliness, love-
and longing, always longing. The mythos of Kashmir, and the opulence of
Urdu poetry shaped much of his writing.

This poem, Farewell, is a shattering evocation of conflict. Of belief
pitted against belief, of memories and histories intertwined and
warring. A pity beyond all telling in the lines, 'They make a desolation
and call it peace'.  There is no attempt to resolve the implacable anger
that fuels such conflict- beyond a sense of bitter, bitter mourning. '
We cannot ask them yet, are you done with the world?'

And yet, what seeps through in this poem and all the others in 'The
Country Without a Post Office' is the unbearable wistfulness, the unsaid
plea of its final lines, 'If only you could have been mine- what could
not have been possible in the world?'


Snowball -- Shel Silverstein

I've received several theme submissions; rather than risk an overdose I've
decided to wait a while and then run another series of narrative poems. In
the mean time, on with your regular Minstrels...
(Poem #1128) Snowball
 I made myself a snowball
 As perfect as could be.
 I thought I'd keep it as a pet
 And let it sleep with me.
 I made it some pajamas
 And a pillow for its head.
 Then last night it ran away,
 But first it wet the bed.
-- Shel Silverstein
'Snowball' is Silverstein at his aww-inspiring best. I know of very few
people who can enter a child's world with such a combination of insight,
humour and oh-so-deceptive simplicity - even 'Calvin and Hobbes' doesn't
have that convincingly natural "if a kid had the talent, this is what he
might write" feel to it. I can just picture a parent keeping a *very*
straight face and sympathising with the child - and I'm very glad there's
nothing to stop me from laughing out loud.


Gunga Din -- Rudyard Kipling

A few notes: Since there are a lot of Hindi phrases in today's poem, I've
left the translations alongside rather than put them in the Notes at the
end. *word* is used in place of italics. 'Din' is roughly pronounced Dheen.
The transliterations aren't my fault :)
(Poem #1127) Gunga Din
 You may talk o' gin and beer
 When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
 An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
 But when it comes to slaughter
 You will do your work on water,
 An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.
 Now in Injia's sunny clime,
 Where I used to spend my time
 A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen,
 Of all them blackfaced crew
 The finest man I knew
 Was our regimental *bhisti*, Gunga Din.                     [water carrier]

   He was "Din! Din! Din!
   You limpin' lump o' brick-dust, Gunga Din!
       Hi! slippery *hitherao*!
       Water, get it!  *Panee lao*!                   [bring water swiftly]
   You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din."

 The uniform 'e wore
 Was nothin' much before,
 An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind,
 For a piece o' twisty rag
 An' a goatskin water-bag
 Was all the field-equipment 'e could find.
 When the sweatin' troop-train lay
 In a sidin' through the day,
 Where the 'eat would make your bloomin' eyebrows crawl,
 We shouted "*Harry By!*"         [Mr. Atkins's equivalent for "O brother."]
 Till our throats were bricky-dry,
 Then we wopped 'im 'cause 'e couldn't serve us all.

   It was "Din! Din! Din!
   You 'eathen, where the mischief 'ave you been?
       You put some *juldee* in it                               [be quick]
       Or I'll *marrow* you this minute                           [hit you]
   If you don't fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!"

 'E would dot an' carry one
 Till the longest day was done;
 An' 'e didn't seem to know the use o' fear.
 If we charged or broke or cut,
 You could bet your bloomin' nut,
 'E'd be waitin' fifty paces right flank rear.
 With 'is *mussick* on 'is back,                               [water-skin]
 'E would skip with our attack,
 An' watch us till the bugles made "Retire",
 An' for all 'is dirty 'ide
 'E was white, clear white, inside
 When 'e went to tend the wounded under fire!

   It was "Din! Din! Din!"
   With the bullets kickin' dust-spots on the green.
       When the cartridges ran out,
       You could hear the front-files shout,
   "Hi! ammunition-mules an' Gunga Din!"

 I shan't forgit the night
 When I dropped be'ind the fight
 With a bullet where my belt-plate should 'a' been.
 I was chokin' mad with thirst,
 An' the man that spied me first
 Was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din.
 'E lifted up my 'ead,
 An' he plugged me where I bled,
 An' 'e guv me 'arf-a-pint o' water-green:
 It was crawlin' and it stunk,
 But of all the drinks I've drunk,
 I'm gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

   It was "Din! Din! Din!
   'Ere's a beggar with a bullet through 'is spleen;
       'E's chawin' up the ground,
       An' 'e's kickin' all around:
   For Gawd's sake git the water, Gunga Din!"

 'E carried me away
 To where a dooli lay,
 An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean.
 'E put me safe inside,
 An' just before 'e died,
 "I 'ope you liked your drink", sez Gunga Din.
 So I'll meet 'im later on
 At the place where 'e is gone --
 Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
 'E'll be squattin' on the coals
 Givin' drink to poor damned souls,
 An' I'll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!

   Yes, Din! Din! Din!
   You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
       Though I've belted you and flayed you,
       By the livin' Gawd that made you,
   You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
-- Rudyard Kipling
Today's poem has received perhaps the highest accolade possible - the phrase
"you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din" has passed into the language
complete with variants of the form "you're a $fooer $bar than I am, Gunga
Din". This is, of course, mostly due to the perfect cadence of the last line
- it's an irresistibly quotable phrase once you've heard it, for reasons
that have nothing to do with the rest of the poem.

Quite apart from that, though, this is very justly one of Kipling's best
known pieces. In a body of poems dealing with the plight of Thomas Atkins, an
ordinary man doing a thankless job in a war he didn't care about, Gunga Din
stands out as perhaps Kipling's most memorable hero. His status as a
noncombatant makes the tale at once more heroic and more tragic, and his
rough treatment at the hands of the regiment invests him with all the pathos
an age-old literary tradition can be made to yield - but over and above that,
there is the very Kiplingesque touch of presenting his story from a
soldier's point of view, and that makes a significant difference.

What we get, almost without realising it, is not just the story of Gunga
Din, but the story of Din's relationship with the regiment he served - a
relationship far more complex than the "harsh masters and mistreated but
nobly loyal servant" situation that lines like

 Then we wopped 'im 'cause 'e couldn't serve us all.

might lead one to assume. This is a crucial point, because if you do not
allow a measure of genuine love - or perhaps a mutual *belonging* is more to
the point - between Din and the regiment, the final line comes across as
nothing more than a pretty and somewhat patronising statement.

As for the theme, I won't repeat my remarks on what makes a good narrative
poem; suffice it to say that Gunga Din satisfies the criteria in full



  Translations from Gutenberg, via

  Theme: [broken link]

  There was a movie loosely based on the poem:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew -- Robert Service

(Poem #1126) The Shooting of Dan McGrew
 A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
 The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
 Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
 And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

 When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
 There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
 He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength
        of a louse,
 Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks
        for the house.
 There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves
        for a clue;
 But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

 There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
 And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
 With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
 As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
 Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
 And I turned my head -- and there watching him was the lady that's
        known as Lou.

 His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
 Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
 The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
 So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
 In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
 Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands -- my God! but that man
        could play.

 Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
 And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
 With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
 A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
 While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? --
 Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

 And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
 But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
 For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
 But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love --
 A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true --
 (God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, -- the lady that's
        known as Lou.)

 Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
 But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once
        held dear;
 That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
 That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
 'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through
        and through --
 "I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

 The music almost died away ... then it burst like a pent-up flood;
 And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood.
 The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
 And the lust awoke to kill, to kill ... then the music stopped with a crash,
 And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
 In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
 Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
 And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
 But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke
        they're true,
 That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew."

 Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed
        in the dark,
 And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
 Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
 While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's
        known as Lou.

 These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
 They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying
        it's so.
 I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two --
 The woman that kissed him and -- pinched his poke -- was the lady that's
        known as Lou.
-- Robert Service
Note: 'Spread misere': also 'open misere', a bid in some whist derivatives
  involving the bidding player playing for no tricks (misere) and placing
  his cards face up on the table (spread).

As I mentioned a couple of poems ago, frontiers tend to produce some highly
vivid and colourful stories and narrative poems, and Service's tales of the
Yukon are surely among the best of the breed. An often overlooked
'character' in these tales is the land itself - Kipling's India, Paterson's
Australia, Twain's Mississippi all have an unmistakable presence that
permeates the tales and moulds and shapes their characters. Service, perhaps
more so than any of them, makes this explicit in his poems:

  Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
  And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
  With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
  A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
  While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars?
  Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

and it is this, more than anything else, that draws me to reread them time
and again, seldom without a shiver.

Today's tale of mysterious strangers, calculating women, and sudden violence
seems perfectly natural in its setting, and Service's verse hews and shapes
it without robbing it of any of its raw intensity. Definitely an immortal
poem - perhaps even more so than the haunting "Cremation of Sam McGee".



  See Poem #781 for a collection of Service-related sites - I couldn't find
  anything interesting specifically related to today's poem.

  The current theme:
    [broken link]

Waltzing Matilda -- A B "Banjo" Paterson

(Poem #1125) Waltzing Matilda
 Oh! there once was a swagman camped in a Billabong,
 Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
 And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
 "Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

     Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling?
     Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
     Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag --
     Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

 Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water-hole,
 Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee;
 And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker-bag,
 "You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

 Down came the Squatter a-riding his thoroughbred;
 Down came Policemen -- one, two and three.
 "Whose is the jumbuck you've got in the tucker-bag?
 You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"

 But the swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
 Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
 And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong
 "Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"
-- A B "Banjo" Paterson
Notes: Published as sheet music in 1903. This is Paterson's original version;
I've included a link to the somewhat altered popular version

There is little doubt that Waltzing Matilda belongs in any collection of
immortal narrative verse. As one commentator put it,

    Waltzing Matilda is an Australian icon.  It is quite likely that more
    Australians know the words to this song than the national anthem.  There
    is probably no other song that is more easily recognised by a populace:
    young or old: ocker or a newly arrived immigrant.

and even outside its homeland, it is unquestionably the world's best known
piece of Australian writing. Or perhaps that should be "writing and music",
for the words are inextricably entwined with the tune (I have to wonder how
popular the poem, with its heavy use of Australianisms, would have been
internationally were it not for the delightfully catchy tune - it is
definitely a great poem, but I wouldn't really call it accessible. The tune
has ensured, though, that people do take the time to find out what exactly
all the words mean.)

While I have chosen to run Paterson's original words, I do think the popular
version is in several ways an improvement upon it. (Indeed, while WM is
Paterson's most famous work, it is far from his best). The greatest
improvement is in line two of the last verse - the rather weak

  Drowning himself by the coolabah tree


  You'll never catch me alive, said he

and lends the song that touch of desperate, defiant romance that was missing
from its earlier incarnation.



  [broken link] is a great starting point
  for all things related to the poem

  Biography of Paterson: [broken link]

  The popular "Marie Cowan" version of the poem, with annotations:

  The original "Queensland" version, with sheet music and several midi

  Paterson's handwritten manuscript:
    [broken link]

  Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda": Poem #981

  The current theme:
    [broken link]

The Green Eye of the Yellow God -- J Milton Hayes

This week's theme - immortal narrative poems
(Poem #1124) The Green Eye of the Yellow God
 There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
 There's a little marble cross below the town;
 There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
 And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

 He was known as "Mad Carew" by the subs at Khatmandu,
 He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
 But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,
 And the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.

 He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,
 The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
 She was nearly twenty-one and arrangements had begun
 To celebrate her birthday with a ball.

 He wrote to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;
 They met next day as he dismissed a squad;
 And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
 But the green eye of the little Yellow God.

 On the night before the dance, Mad Carew seemed in a trance,
 And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars;
 But for once he failed to smile, and he sat alone awhile,
 Then went out into the night beneath the stars.

 He returned before the dawn, with his shirt and tunic torn,
 And a gash across his temple dripping red;
 He was patched up right away, and he slept through all the day,
 And the Colonel's daughter watched beside his bed.

 He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;
 She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;
 He bade her search the pocket saying, "That's from Mad Carew,"
 And she found the little green eye of the god.

 She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
 Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;
 But she wouldn't take the stone and Mad Carew was left alone
 With the jewel that he'd chanced his life to get.

 When the ball was at its height, on that still and tropic night,
 She thought of him and hastened to his room;
 As she crossed the barrack square she could hear the dreamy air
 Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro' the gloom.

 His door was open wide, with silver moonlight shining through;
 The place was wet and slipp'ry where she trod;
 An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew,
 'Twas the "Vengeance of the Little Yellow God."

 There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu
 There's a little marble cross below the town;
 There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
 And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
-- J Milton Hayes
        (1911, music by Cuthbert Clarke)

This is one of those vivid, exaggerated poems that some critics would dismiss
as 'lowbrow', but which enjoy a tremendous popularity for all of that. There
is a certain combination of elements that indefinably but unmistakably lends
a narrative poem the stamp of immortality - Kipling's 'Gunga Din' had it, as
did Service's 'Dan McGrew', and so, in full measure does today's poem.

It's hard to pin down just what sets it apart from so many other poems. A
sine qua non is, of course, a good story to tell, and almost as essentially,
a larger-than-life protagonist to tell it about. A strong rhythm and good
rhymes are likewise a must - anything that breaks the flow of the poem will
at best distract and at worst jar upon the reader. And finally, there should
be something extravagant about the imagery - this is no place for delicate
subtlety. This extravagance should hold, too, for the plot - the reader
expects larger-than-life situations to accompany the larger-than-life
characters, and they go a long way towards making the poem memorable.

It is unsurprising that so many of these poems seem to be set along
frontiers, pooling in the constant clash and swirl of wilderness and
civilisation. It is precisely there that a romance-starved populace looks
for its unfettered heroes, and writers are seldom slow to provide them.

Sadly, with popular taste turning away from poetry recitation as a form of
entertainment, poems like today's may well become an endangered species[1] -
Shakespeare and Keats may live on in a hundred thousand classrooms, but
syllabi seldom stress poetry for sheer pleasure. This week's I'll round up a
few of them that haven't been run yet - suggestions and guest poems are as
always welcome.

[1] yes, I know I said 'immortal', but...


Brief biography of Hayes:
  [broken link]

The fine art of poetry recitation:
  [broken link]

Tangential but intriguing:
[broken link]

There are touches of Barbara Allen [Poem #548]
                 and The Glove and the Lions [Poem #275]
in the story

There are several parodies floating about, but they all commit the cardinal
sin of bad scansion; I have therefore linked to none of them.


Untitled (Epitaph for Lord Castlereagh) -- George Gordon, Lord Byron

Guest poem sent in by Suresh Ramasubramanian
(Poem #1123) Untitled (Epitaph for Lord Castlereagh)
 Posterity will ne'er survey
 A nobler scene than this.
 Here lie the bones of Castlereagh.
 Stop traveller, and piss.
-- George Gordon, Lord Byron
I was reminded of this when I saw it in a usenet post by my good friend
Shakib Otaqui.

Byron sounds off about one of the most unpopular and reviled politicians
of his era - a man who was forced to resign and spent the last fifteen
years of his life a mental wreck before he committed suicide by cutting
himself with a penknife.

If you want to rest in peace, never piss off a poet, is all I can say
about the poem.

Profile of Lord Castlereagh -
[broken link]

Castlereagh also had to face the wrath of Shelley, who wrote "The Mask
of Anarchy", blaming the massacre at St.Peters Fields on Lord
Castlereagh and his fellow minister Lord Sidmouth.

That is almost biblical, and (I think) compares Castlereagh and Sidmouth
to an evil version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

However, it is, unfortunately, a bit too long for minstrels, weighing in
at a whole 91 stanzas (plus a couple more, given different manuscripts /
editions of this grand poem).

Anyway, it is available online at
[broken link]


[Martin adds: The last line seems like a parody of Wordsworth's "Stop here,
or gently pass", from 'The Solitary Reaper'. Byron's sarcasm is a touch
heavy-handed, but, as always, a fun read - he certainly has a much better
ear than the oft-reviled (at least here on Minstrels <g>) Shelley, whose
'Mask of Anarchy' made me wince with the sheer dysphony and clumsiness of
the verse. I mean, the man rhymed "Italy" with "sea"! In the first two
lines, no less!! Sorry, I'll stop now (:]

Hope -- Edith Sodergran

Guest poem sent in by Vidur
(Poem #1122) Hope
 I want to let go -
 so I don't give a damn about fine writing,
 I'm rolling my sleeves up.
 The dough's rising...
 Oh what a shame
 I can't bake cathedrals...
 that sublimity of style
 I've always yearned for...
 Child of our time -
 haven't you found the right shell for your soul?

 Before I die I *shall*
 bake a cathedral.
-- Edith Sodergran
isn't this a great little poem? i think you can almost *feel* the range of
emotions sodergran expresses, emotions anyone who has pursued an elusive
dream can identify with. you want to just give it all up, your every effort
is frustrated, you're almost there... if you could only...  - and you feel
all of this at the same time!

i think all of us need a little hope in our lives. even if it's "false".

someday, i shall bake a cathedral...


editing notes: the *'s around 'shall' in the last line are only there
because i couldn't reproduce the italics. but the ellipses are actually
in the verse. i have to wonder whether the original nordic verse had
them. i don't like them or their placement much, but after thinking
about it, perhaps they do work to visually reinforce the notion of

about the poet: edith sodergran was a swedish poet, who wrote in the
early 1900's.

H.M.S. Foudroyant -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(Poem #1121) H.M.S. Foudroyant
[Being an humble address to Her Majesty's Naval advisers, who sold Nelson's
old flagship to the Germans for a thousand pounds.]

 Who says the Nation's purse is lean,
 Who fears for claim or bond or debt,
 When all the glories that have been
 Are scheduled as a cash asset?
 If times are bleak and trade is slack,
 If coal and cotton fail at last,
 We've something left to barter yet --
 Our glorious past.

 There's many a crypt in which lies hid
 The dust of statesman or of king;
 There's Shakespeare's home to raise a bid,
 And Milton's house its price would bring.
 What for the sword that Cromwell drew?
 What for Prince Edward's coat of mail?
 What for our Saxon Alfred's tomb?
 They're all for sale!

 And stone and marble may be sold
 Which serve no present daily need;
 There's Edward's Windsor, labelled old,
 And Wolsey's palace, guaranteed.
 St. Clement Danes and fifty fanes,
 The Tower and the Temple grounds;
 How much for these? Just price them, please,
 In British pounds.

 You hucksters, have you still to learn,
 The things which money will not buy?
 Can you not read that, cold and stern
 As we may be, there still does lie
 Deep in our hearts a hungry love
 For what concerns our island story?
 We sell our work -- perchance our lives,
 But not our glory.

 Go barter to the knacker's yard
 The steed that has outlived its time!
 Send hungry to the pauper ward
 The man who served you in his prime!
 But when you touch the Nation's store,
 Be broad your mind and tight your grip.
 Take heed! And bring us back once more
 Our Nelson's ship.

 And if no mooring can be found
 In all our harbours near or far,
 Then tow the old three-decker round
 To where the deep-sea soundings are;
 There, with her pennon flying clear,
 And with her ensign lashed peak high,
 Sink her a thousand fathoms sheer.
 There let her lie!
-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Righteous indignation and patriotic fervour are both emotions that have
produced some fine poems, and today's rant - pardon me, today's *humble
address* - combines them to good effect.

Doyle is, of course, helped by the highly emotional nature of the subject -
no one likes to feel that their nation's heritage is for sale to the highest
bidder, and so there is a natural sympathy on the reader's part for the
poem's point of view. But even discounting that, Doyle has done a fine job -
the poem strikes a good balance between thick sarcasm and honest ire, not
going overboard in either direction, or losing its audience by means of
overly uncontrolled ranting. It's not, I admit, as good as Kipling (with
whom a comparison is inevitable), but then, what is?



  The HMS Foudroyant:
  Interesting tidbit:

The Law Locks Up the Man or Woman -- Anonymous

(Poem #1120) The Law Locks Up the Man or Woman
 The law locks up the man or woman
 Who steals the goose from off the common;
 But lets the greater felon loose
 Who steals the common from the goose.
-- Anonymous
I've always thought of this one as a nursery rhyme that didn't quite make
it. More fairly, it's balanced somewhere between traditional nursery rhymes
like 'The Lion and the Unicorn' and biting social commentary like
Cleghorn's "The Golf Links" [Poem #216], with a dash of the proverb thrown

The reason today's poem never made it as a nursery rhyme is fairly obvious -
it's too explicit. Traditional 'hidden meaning' nursery rhymes were slyly
humorous, veiling their ridicule in allusion. Of course, at the time of
writing, the allusion would have been totally transparent, and ensured that
the rhyme got passed around with a wink and a nudge in taverns and on street
corners. Later generations would see it merely as an amusing children's
poem, but there again it would get handed down from parent to child, until
it was ubiquitous.

On the other hand, today's poem's meaning is clear in general terms. It's
even relevant enough that people can still relate to it. However, the
Inclosure Act to which it refers was passed hundreds of years ago; the poem
is no longer current, and loses something thereby. And, lacking the enforced
whimsy of the more allusive nursery rhymes, it was never seen as a
children's poem - rather than being passed down as attractive nonsense when
it lost its topicality, it faded into a sort of semiobscurity.

One aspect of the nursery rhyme it *has* shared is alteration via the folk
process. There are several versions floating around, from minor variants
like the substitution of 'villain' for 'felon', to the following from the
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:

  "The fault is great in man or woman
   Who steals a goose from off a common:
   But what can plead that man's excuse
   Who steals a common from a goose?"

           --The Tickler Magazine, 1 Feb. 1821.

Like Swift's poem on lesser fleas, though, I am fairly confident that the
folk process has improved the original - poems that are handed down orally
tend to undergo a rather ruthless evolutionary winnowing. If they're not
good enough, they don't get repeated, and if a mutated form is more quotable
or pleasing, it has a very good chance of replacing the original.


 An alt.quotations thread on the poem:

 The Inclosure Act, in context
  [broken link]