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The Unspoken -- Edwin Morgan

(Poem #147) The Unspoken
When the troopship was pitching round the Cape
in '41, and there was a lull in the night uproar of
    seas and winds, and a sudden full moon
swung huge out of the darkness like the world it is,
and we all crowded into the wet deck, leaning on
    the rail, our arms on each other's shoulders,
    gazing at the savage outcrop of great Africa.
and Tommy Cosh started singing 'Mandalay' and
    we joined in with our raucous chorus of the
    unforgettable song,
and the dawn came up like thunder like that
    moon drawing the water of our yearning
though we were going to war, and left us exalted,
that was happiness,
but it is not like that.

When the television newscaster said
the second sputnik was up, not empty,
but with a small dog on board,
a half-ton treasury of life orbiting a thousand
    miles above the thin television masts and mists
    of November,
in clear space, heard, observed,
the faint far heartbeat sending back its message
steady and delicate,
and I was stirred by a deep confusion of feelings,
got up, stood with my back to the wall and my
    palms pressed hard against it, my arms held
as if I could spring from the earth ---
not loath myself to go out that very day where
    Laika had shown man, felt
my cheeks burning with old Promethean warmth
rekindled --- ready ---
covered my face with my hands, seeing only an
strapped in a doomed capsule, but the future
    was still there, cool and whole like the moon,
waiting to be taken, smiling even
as the dog's bones and the elaborate casket of
glow white and fuse in the arc of re-entry
and I knew what I felt was history,
its thrilling brilliance came down,
came down,
comes down on us all, bringing pride and pity,
but it is not like that.

But Glasgow days and grey weathers, when the
beat on the bus shelter and you leaned slightly
    against me, and the back of your hand touched
    my hand in the shadows, and nothing was
when your hair grazed mine accidentally as we
    talked in a cafe, yet not quite accidentally,
when I stole a glance at your face as we stood in a
    doorway and found I was afraid
of what might happen if I should never see it again,
when we met, and met, in spite of such differences
    in our lives,
and did the common things that in our feeling
became extraordinary, so that our first kiss
was like the winter morning moon, and as you
    shifted in my arms
it was the sea changing the shingle that changes
as if for ever (but we are bound by nothing, but
    like smoke
to mist or light in water we move, and mix) ---
O then it was a story as old as war or man
and although we have not said it we know it,
and although we have not claimed it we do it,
and although we have not vowed it we keep it,
without a name to the end
-- Edwin Morgan

Most poems are about experiences; this one is about Experience.

Not many poets have attempted such an ambitious topic; it is to Morgan's
credit that he does not bite off more than he can chew. There is no
abstract sophistry, no flights of philosophical fancy; the language is
simple and everyday; the incidents, commonplace. And yet... and yet,
through his retelling of three ordinary stories, he touches the essence
of what it means to be human - joy and exhilaration and pride and pity
and ambition and fear and love and longing... It's not something that
can be expressed in mere language. But it's there.

"There are some truths which are deeper than words".



Edwin Morgan
19 Whittingehame Court
Glasgow G12 0BG

Edwin Morgan was born in Glasgow in 1920. He served in the Royal Army
Medical Corps in the Middle East from 1940 to 1946. He took an M.A. at
the University of Glasgow (1st Class Honours in Englush Language and
Literature) in 1947. He made his living from university teaching and
retired as Titular Professor in 1980. He has various honorary degrees
and an O.B.E.

He is a poet (Collected Poems, 1990), translator (Collected
Translations, 1996), and critic (Crossing the Border, 1990). He has
writted poetry for radio (A Voyage, commisioned by BBC for two voices,
broadcast on Radio 4, 1996). He has written poems for jazz setting
(Beasts of Scotland, commisioned by Glasgow International Jazz festival,
music by Tommy Smith, performed 1996, accompanied by compact disc from
Linn Records, Glasgow). He is at present (March 1997) collaborating
again with Tommy Smith in a new sequence of poems, Planet Wave, to be
performed at the Cheltenham Festival this year, the performance to be
recorded live by BBC.

He has written several librettos for opera and music-theatre:

The Charcoal-Burner, music by Thomas Wilson.
Valentine, music by George Newson.
Spell (later retitled Coll for the Hazel Tree), music by Martin Dalby.
Columba, music by Kenneth Leighton.

He has also adapted/translated various plays:

The Apple-Tree (translated from anonymous Dutch play of the 15th
century, Esbatement van den Appelboom).
Master Peter Pathelin, (translated from anonymous 15th-centure French
farce, Maistre Pierre Pathelin).
The Shepherds' Play (a modern version in English and Scot of the
15th-century mystery play).
Cyrano de Bergerac (translation into Scots of Rostand's play).

56 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Jon Poole said...

Dear Whoever will recieve this,

I have been doing the Oxford Secondary English book with my class in
English and we have come to page 79 which is Edwin Morgan's poem
called:The first men on Mercury.
We all like this poem but would like to find out what the alien language
means because we are fascinated by the poem.
Please tell me more about him because I would love to find out what the
language means.
Yours Sincerely
Rachel (age 10)

Margaret McNally said...

A poem about love simplistic language and easily understood

KELLY Lindsay said...

I read with interest the comments made by Rachel, age 10, about 'First
Men on Mercury'. I am not sure how old this site is but I would like
Rachel to know that the words do not mean anything. The peom just shows
how we adopt other languages into our own... If you notice, by the end
of the poem, the spacemen are talking in the alien words and the aliens
in the earth words. It is a really fun poem. I hope you enjoy much
more of his work. He is my favourite poet.

Lindsay Kelly (Miss)


marcus said...

Browsing these pages looking for a poem for my young daughter, e e cummings - i carry your heart, I lost myself in searching for half remembered lines memorised what seems tonight a hundred years ago. First, Strawberries and so through a link to The Unspoken. Never seen it before and now I am left breathless with all it doesn't say. All I can say is "Oh!" There's that ache again, the one I thought I had mastered.

Lizzie, Sheffield, England

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