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Night Is On The Downland -- John Masefield

Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #702) Night Is On The Downland
 Night is on the downland, on the lonely moorland,
 On the hills where the wind goes over sheep-bitten turf,
 Where the bent grass beats upon the unplowed poorland
 And the pine-woods roar like the surf.

 Here the Roman lived on the wind-barren lonely,
 Dark now and haunted by the moorland fowl;
 None comes here now but the peewit only,
 And moth-like death in the owl.

 Beauty was here in on this beetle-droning downland;
 The thought of a Caesar in the purple came
 From the palace by the Tiber in the Roman townland
 To this wind-swept hill with no name.

 Lonely Beauty came here and was here in sadness,
 Brave as a thought on the frontier of the mind,
 In the camp of the wild upon the march of madness,
 The bright-eyed Queen of the Blind.

 Now where Beauty was are the wind-withered gorses,
 Moaning like old men in the hill-wind's blast;
 The flying sky is dark with running horses,
 And the night is full of the past.
-- John Masefield
A very vivid poem from Masefield. You can almost see the wind pouring the
clouds past, whipping past your ears in the dark. "Brave as a thought on the
frontier of the mind" is a line that has particularly stuck in my mind.

Masefield, by the way, is one of those poets best read in anthology. I once
tried reading a collected works, and tired quite fast. And I read this in
one of the best anthologies I've ever found: The Pocket Book Of Modern
Verse, edited by Oscar Williams.

I bought it years ago in a place that has now sadly vanished - Moore Market
in Madras. This was a wonderful old red brick structure from the Raj, in the
ornate Indo-Saracenic style you get in Madras. It was a warren of shops of
all kinds, but the ones I stuck to were all in the circle of old book shops
that ringed the Market. (Very sadly, it burned down - or was burned down,
it's never been precisely solved - some years later)

I was quite young then and just starting to read poetry as opposed to
mugging it in school. And this book I think was the perfect introduction.
Williams' definition of modern is a broad one, going from Walt Whitman,
Matthew Arnold and W.S.Gilbert, via Wallace Steves and Ezra Pound,
A.E.Housman and John Masefield all the way to Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
(No Eliot though, his estate didn't allow it).

This may seem too broad a sweep, but I think it was best for the reader I
then was. The traditional poems like this Masefield one were easy to
understand, so I wasn't put off and form the impression so many people have
of poetry has weird and difficult. Williams steered clear though of the more
mawkish traditional poems and mixed with them were always the more
challenging ones.

It started right from Whitman, whose burst of pure energy got the collection
off to a high power start. There were the formal melodies of Wallace Steves,
more energy from Ezra Pound, and as the book progressed poets who I didn't
always understand then, but came to appreciate over the years.

The other reason I liked the book was the photographs. Tiny, sepia, passport
ones of the poets' faces. I can't say why but it somehow made it more read
and vivid, it added some quality of life, to have faces one could connect
with poems. Perhaps it was a bit specious, but there seemed to be a link.
The melancholy of Housman reflected in the bleakness of his gaze. Edna
St.Vincent Millay looked as beautiful and doomed as her poems suggest.

I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Years later I read an article by a
poet from, I think, the Soviet Union. Some country under censorship, with
access to Western works curtailed. Somehow he got a copy of this same book,
and for him too the faces came to matter along with the poems. The book was
a link to a wider world of poetry, and the faces helped reinforce their
iconic stature.

I've read many other good anthologies since then, learning to appreciate the
anthologist's art. Palgrave's classic one, for example. Or The Faber Book of
Modern Verse, for example, which finally introduced me to the Wasteland. Or
a more personal one, like Lord Wavell's Other Men's Flower's (both because
its really nice, as well as for the thought of him reading them in between
all the frustrating negotiations for Indian Independence). But, though it's
old now and falling to pieces now so I can't really read it much, The Pocket
Book remains one of the best anthologies for me.


7 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Patricia O' Meara said...

Night is on the downland, this beginning really intrigues me. It is full
of mystery-- 'haunted by the moorland fowl.' What happened here? Who is
the 'Queen of the Blind?' The image of 'lonely beauty' and 'The flying
sky is dark with running horses, expresses for me a deep longing. I can
see these images in following paintings.Perhaps there is a need to unite
somewhere in the past. 'And the night is full of the past.' We are all
full of the past. Way back we go to our ancestors. It is at night that
we dream, that our own past can come to us. The past on the moorland
speaks about the Romans. A person who has studied history may know the
story.But it doesn't matter, because the poem for me is is full of
images I can relate to intuitively.

I think the poet has written a poem that I can forever relate to,like a
painting that one can live with.

Patricia O' Meara

Kamagra said...

Masefield is one of my favorites, this person has edited many of their poems in this site, and thanks to you, I know the excellent work, made it as you said for a vivid poet.

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