the spiritual, Platonic old England …
S. T. COLERIDGE, Anima Poetae
‘Your situation’, said Coningsby, looking up the green and silent valley, ‘is absolutely poetic.’
‘I try sometimes to fancy’, said Mr Millbank, with a rather fierce smile, ‘that I am in the New World.’
BENJAMIN DISRAELI, Coningsby
1 QUAINT MAZES
And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn,
those muddy-hued and midge-tormented ghosts.
On blustery lilac-bush and terrace-urn
bedaubed with bloom Linnaean pentecosts
put their pronged light; the chilly fountains burn.
Religion of the heart, with trysts and quests
and pangs of consolation, its hawk’s hood
twitched off for sweet carnality, again
rejoices in old hymns of servitude,
haunting the sacred well, the hidden shrine.
It is the ravage of the heron wood;
it is the rood blazing upon the green.
2 DAMON’S LAMENT FOR HIS CLORINDA, YORKSHIRE 1654
November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.
The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages
from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun
swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live like gleaners of its vestiges
knowing we flourish, though each year a child
with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down
for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold
in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?
3 WHO ARE THESE COMING TO THE SACRIFICE?
High voices in domestic chapels; praise;
praise-worthy feuds; new-burgeoned spires that sprung
crisp-leaved as though from dropping-wells. The young
ferns root among our vitrified tears.
What an elopement that was: the hired chaise
tore through the fir-grove, scattered kinsmen flung
buckshot and bridles, and the tocsin swung
from the tarred bellcote dappled with dove-smears.
Wires tarnish in gilt corridors, in each room
stiff with the bric-a-brac of loss and gain.
Love fled, truly outwitted, through a swirl
of long-laid dust. Today you sip and smile
though still not quite yourself. Guarding its pane
the spider looms against another storm.
4 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (I)
Make miniatures of the once-monstrous theme:
the red-coat devotees, melees of wheels,
Jagannath’s lovers. With indifferent aim
unleash the rutting cannon at the walls
of forts and palaces; pollute the wells.
Impound the memoirs for their bankrupt shame,
fantasies of true destiny that kills
‘under the sanction of the English name’.
Be moved by faith, obedience without fault,
the flawless hubris of heroic guilt,
the grace of visitation; and be stirred
by all her god-quests, her idolatries,
in conclave of abiding injuries,
sated upon the stillness of the bride.
5 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (II)
Suppose they sweltered here three thousand years
patient for our destruction. There is a greeting
beyond the act. Destiny is the great thing,
true lord of annexation and arrears.
Our law-books overrule the emperors.
The mango is the bride-bed of light. Spring
jostles the flame-tree. But new mandates bring
new images of faith, good subahdars!
The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Radha lovingly untwines.
Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.
6 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (III)
Malcolm and Frere, Colebrooke and Elphinstone,
the life of empire like the life of the mind
‘simple, sensuous, passionate’, attuned
to the clear theme of justice and order, gone.
Gone the ascetic pastimes, the Persian
scholarship, the wild boar run to ground,
the watercolours of the sun and wind.
Names rise like outcrops on the rich terrain,
like carapaces of the Mughal tombs
lop-sided in the rice-fields, boarded-up
near railway-crossings and small aerodromes.
‘India’s a peacock-shrine next to a shop
selling mangola, sitars, lucky charms,
heavenly Buddhas smiling in their sleep.’
7 LOSS AND GAIN
Pitched high above the shallows of the sea
lone bells in gritty belfries do not ring
but coil a far and inward echoing
out of the air that thrums. Enduringly,
fuchsia-hedges fend between cliff and sky;
brown stumps of headstones tamp into the ling
the ruined and the ruinously strong.
Platonic England grasps its tenantry
where wild-eyed poppies raddle tawny farms
and wild swans root in lily-clouded lakes.
Vulnerable to each other the twin forms
of sleep and waking touch the man who wakes
to sudden light, who thinks that this becalms
even the phantoms of untold mistakes.
While friends defected, you stayed and were sure,
fervent in reason, watchful of each name:
a signet-seal’s unostentatious gem
gleams against walnut on the escritoire,
focus of reckoning and judicious prayer.
This is the durable covenant, a room
quietly furnished with stuff of martyrdom,
lit by the flowers and moths from your own shire,
by silvery vistas frothed with convolvulus;
radiance of dreams hardly to be denied.
The twittering pipistrelle, so strange and close,
plucks its curt flight through the moist eventide;
the children thread among old avenues
of snowberries, clear-calling as they fade.
9 THE LAUREL AXE
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.
It stands, as though at ease with its own world,
the mannerly extortions, languid praise,
all that devotion long since bought and sold,
the rooms of cedar and soft-thudding baize,
tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed
in cabinets of amethyst and frost.
Remember how, at seven years, the decrees
were brought home: child-soul must register
for Christ’s dole, be allotted its first Easter,
blanch-white and empty, chilled by the lilies,
betrothed among the well-wishers and spies.
Reverend Mother, breakfastless, could feast her
constraint on terracotta and alabaster
and brimstone and the sweets of paradise.
Theology makes good bedside reading. Some
who are lost covet scholastic proof,
subsistence of probation, modest balm.
The wooden wings of justice borne aloof,
we close our eyes to Anselm and lie calm.
All night the cisterns whisper in the roof.
11 IDYLLS OF THE KING
The pigeon purrs in the wood; the wood has gone;
dark leaves that flick to silver in the gust,
and the marsh-orchids and the heron’s nest,
goldgrimy shafts and pillars of the sun.
Weightless magnificence upholds the past.
Cement recesses smell of fur and bone
and berries wrinkle in the badger-run
and wiry heath-fern scatters its fresh rust.
‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight
above this long-sought and forsaken ground,
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.
12 THE EVE OF ST MARK
Stroke the small silk with your whispering hands,
godmother; nod and nod from the half-gloom;
broochlight intermittent between the fronds,
the owl immortal in its crystal dome.
Along the mantelpiece veined lustres trill,
the clock discounts us with a telling chime.
Familiar ministrants, clerks-of-appeal,
burnish upon the threshold of the dream:
churchwardens in wing-collars bearing scrolls
of copyhold well-tinctured and well-tied.
Your photo-albums loved by the boy-king
preserve in sepia waterglass the souls
of distant cousins, virgin till they died,
and the lost delicate suitors who could sing.
13 THE HEREFORDSHIRE CAROL
So to celebrate that kingdom: it grows
greener in winter, essence of the year;
the apple-branches musty with green fur.
In the viridian darkness of its yews
it is an enclave of perpetual vows
broken in time. Its truth shows disrepair,
disfigured shrines, their stones of gossamer,
Old Moore’s astrology, all hallows,
the squire’s effigy bewigged with frost,
and hobnails cracking puddles before dawn.
In grange and cottage girls rise from their beds
by candlelight and mend their ruined braids.
Touched by the cry of the iconoclast,
how the rose-window blossoms with the sun!