Last Poems


The Poet and His Book | Intimations of Mortality | The Wind is Blind | Time's Reversals | The Threshing Machine | Winter Trees on the Horizon | To Sleep | The Marriage of True Minds | In Honour of America, 1917 | Lord, I Owe Thee a Death | Reflexions | To Conscripts | The Voice of a Bird | The Question | The Laws of Verse | "The Return to Nature" | To Silence | The English Metres | "Rivers Unknown to Song" | To the Mother of Christ the Son of Man | A Comparison | Surmise | To Antiquity | Christmas Night | The October Redbreast | To "a Certain Rich Man" | "Everlasting Farewells" | The Poet to the Birds
At Night to W. M.

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THE POET AND HIS BOOK

Here are my thoughts, alive within this fold, 
  My simple sheep. Their shepherd, I grow wise 
As dearly, gravely, deeply I behold 
      Their different eyes.

O distant pastures in their blood! O streams From watersheds that fed them for this prison! Lights from aloft, midsummer suns in dreams, Set and arisen.

They wander out, but all return anew, The small ones, to this heart to which they clung; "And those that are with young," the fruitful few That are with young.

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INTIMATIONS OF MORTALITY

FROM RECOLLECTIONS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD

A simple child . . .
That lightly draws its breath
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
Wordsworth

It knows but will not tell. 
  Awake, alone, it counts its father's years-- 
How few are left--its mother's. Ah, how well 
  It knows of death, in tears.

If any of the three-- Parents and child--believe they have prevailed To keep the secret of mortality, I know that two have failed.

The third, the lonely, keeps One secret--a child's knowledge. When they come At night to ask wherefore the sweet one weeps, Those hidden lips are dumb.

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THE WIND IS BLIND

"EYELESS, IN GAZA, AT THE MILL, WITH SLAVES"
Milton's "Samson"

    The wind is blind. 
The earth sees sun and moon; the height 
  Is watch-tower to the dawn; the plain 
Shines to the summer; visible light 
  Is scattered in the drops of rain.

The wind is blind. The flashing billows are aware; With open eyes the cities see; Light leaves the ether, everywhere Known to the homing bird and bee.

The wind is blind, Is blind alone. How has he hurled His ignorant lash, his aimless dart, His eyeless rush, upon the world, Unseeing, to break his unknown heart!

The wind is blind, And the sail traps him, and the mill Captures him; and he cannot save His swiftness and his desperate will From those blind uses of the slave.

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TIME'S REVERSALS

A DAUGHTER'S PARADOX

To his devoted heart*
  Who, young, had loved his ageing mate for life, 
In late lone years Time gave the elder's part, 
  Time gave the bridegroom's boast, Time gave a younger wife.

A wilder prank and plot Time soon will promise, threaten, offering me Impossible things that Nature suffers not-- A daughter's riper mind, a child's seniority.

Oh, by my filial tears Mourned all too young, Father! On this my head Time yet will force at last the longer years, Claiming some strange respect for me from you, the dead.

Nay, nay! Too new to know Time's conjuring is, too great to understand. Memory has not died; it leaves me so-- Leaning a fading brow on your unfaded hand.

* Dr. Johnson outlived by thirty years his wife, who was twenty years his senior.

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THE THRESHING MACHINE

No "fan is in his hand" for these 
Young villagers beneath the trees, 
  Watching the wheels. But I recall 
  The rhythm of rods that rise and fall, 
Purging the harvest, over-seas.

No fan, no flail, no threshing-floor! And all their symbols evermore Forgone in England now--the sign, The visible pledge, the threat divine, The chaff dispersed, the wheat in store.

The unbreathing engine marks no tune, Steady at sunrise, steady at noon, Inhuman, perfect, saving time, And saving measure, and saving rhyme-- And did our Ruskin speak too soon?

"No noble strength on earth" he sees "Save Hercules' arm"; his grave decrees Curse wheel and steam. As the wheels ran I saw the other strength of man, I knew the brain of Hercules.

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WINTER TREES ON THE HORIZON

O delicate! Even in wooded lands 
  They show the margin of my world, 
My own horizon; little bands 
  Of twigs unveil that edge impearled.

And what is more mine own than this, My limit, level with mine eyes? For me precisely do they kiss-- The rounded earth, the rounding skies.

It has my stature, that keen line, (Let mathematics vouch for it). The lark's horizon is not mine, No, nor his nestlings' where they sit;

No, nor the child's. And, when I gain The hills, I lift it as I rise Erect; anon, back to the plain I soothe it with mine equal eyes.

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TO SLEEP

    Dear fool, be true to me! 
I know the poets speak thee fair, and I 
    Hail thee uncivilly. 
O but I call with a more urgent cry!

I do not prize thee less, I need thee more, that thou dost love to teach-- Father of foolishness-- The imbecile dreams clear out of wisdom's reach.

Come and release me; bring My irresponsible mind; come in thy hours; Draw from my soul the sting Of wit that trembles, consciousness that cowers.

For if night comes without thee She is more cruel than day. But thou, fulfil Thy work, thy gifts about thee-- Liberty, liberty, from this weight of will.

My day-mind can endure Upright, in hope, all it must undergo. But O afraid, unsure, My night-mind waking lies too low, too low.

Dear fool, be true to me! The night is thine, man yields it, it beseems Thy ironic dignity. Make me all night the innocent fool that dreams.

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"THE MARRIAGE OF TRUE MINDS"

(IN THE BACH-GOUNOD "AVE MARIA")

That seeking Prelude found its unforetold 
  Unguessed intention, trend; 
Though needing no fulfilment, did enfold 
  This exquisite end.

Bach led his notes up through their delicate slope Aspiring, so they sound, And so they were, in some strange ignorant hope Thus to be crowned.

What deep soft seas beneath this buoyant barque! What winds to speed this bird! What impulses to toss this heavenward lark! Thought--then the word.

Lovely the tune, lovely the unconsciousness Of him who promised it. Lovely the years that joined in blessedness The two, the fit.

Bach was Precursor. But no Baptist's cry Was his; he, who began For one who was to end, did prophesy, By Nature's generous act, the lesser man.

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IN HONOUR OF AMERICA, 1917

IN ANTITHESIS TO ROSSETTI'S "ON THE REFUSAL OF AID BETWEEN NATIONS"

Not that the earth is changing, O my God! 
  Not that her brave democracies take heart 
  To share, to rule her treasure, to impart 
The wine to those who long the wine-press trod; 
Not therefore trust we that beneath Thy nod, 
  Thy silent benediction, even now 
  In gratitude so many nations bow, 
So many poor: not therefore, O my God!

But because living men for dying man Go to a million deaths, to deal one blow; And justice speaks one great compassionate tongue; And nation unto nation calls ``One clan We succourers are, one tribe!'' By this we know Our earth holds confident, steadfast, being young.

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"LORD, I OWE THEE A DEATH" Richard Hooker

(IN TIME OF WAR)

Man pays that debt with new munificence, 
  Not piecemeal now, not slowly, by the old: 
Not grudgingly, by the effaced thin pence, 
  But greatly and in gold.

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REFLEXIONS

(I) IN IRELAND

A mirror faced a mirror: ire and hate 
  Opposite ire and hate; the multiplied, 
The complex charge rejected, intricate, 
  From side to sullen side;

One plot, one crime, one treachery, nay, one name, Assumed, denounced, in echoes of replies. The doubt, exchanged, lit thousands of one flame Within those mutual eyes.

(II) IN "OTHELLO"

A mirror faced a mirror: in sweet pain 
  His dangers with her pity did she track, 
Received her pity with his love again, 
  And these she wafted back.

That masculine passion in her little breast She bandied with him; her compassion he Bandied with her. What tender sport! No rest Had love's infinity.

(III) IN TWO POETS

A mirror faced a mirror: O thy word, 
  Thou lord of images, did lodge in me, 
Locked to my heart, homing from home, a bird, 
  A carrier, bound for thee.

Thy migratory greatness, greater far For that return, returns; now grow divine By endlessness my visiting thoughts, that are Those visiting thoughts of thine.

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TO CONSCRIPTS

Compel them to come in."--ST. LUKE'S GOSPEL

You ``made a virtue of necessity'' 
  By divine sanction; you, the loth, the grey, 
The random, gentle, unconvinced; O be 
  The crowned!--you may, you may.

You, the compelled, be reasted! You, the caught, Be freemen of the gates that word unlocks! Accept your victory from that unsought, That heavenly paradox.

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THE VOICE OF A BIRD

"He shall rise up at the voice of a bird."--ECCLESIASTES

    Who then is ``he''? 
Dante, Keats, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley; all 
Rose in their greatness at the shrill decree, 
The little rousing inarticulate call.

For they stood up At the bird-voice, of lark, of nightingale, Drank poems from that throat as from a cup. Over the great world's notes did these prevail.

And not alone The signal poets woke. In listening man, Woman, and child a poet stirs unknown, Throughout the Mays of birds since Mays began.

He rose, he heard-- Our father, our St. Peter, in his tears-- The crowing, twice, of the prophetic bird, The saddest cock-crow of our human years.

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THE QUESTION

IL POETA MI DISSE, "CHE PENSI?"

Virgil stayed Dante with a wayside word; 
But long, and low, and loud and urgently 
The poets of my passion have I heard 
    Summoning me.

It is their closest whisper and their call. Their greatness to this lowliness hath spoken, Their voices rest upon that interval, Their sign, their token.

Man at his little prayer tells Heaven his thought, To man entrusts his thought--"Friend, this is mine." The immortal poets within my breast have sought, Saying, "What is thine?"

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THE LAWS OF VERSE

    Dear laws, come to my breast! 
Take all my frame, and make your close arms meet 
Around me; and so ruled, so warmed, so pressed, 
I breathe, aware; I feel my wild heart beat.

Dear laws, be wings to me! The feather merely floats. O be it heard Through weight of life--the skylark's gravity-- That I am not a feather, but a bird.

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"THE RETURN TO NATURE"

Histories of Modern Poetry

(I) PROMETHEUS

It was the south: mid-everything, 
  Mid-land, mid-summer, noon; 
And deep within a limpid spring 
  The mirrored sun of June.

Splendour in freshness! Ah, who stole This sun, this fire, from heaven? He holds it shining in his soul, Prometheus the forgiven.

(II) THETIS

In her bright title poets dare 
  What the wild eye of fancy sees-- 
Similitude--the clear, the fair 
  Light mystery of images.

Round the blue sea I love the best The argent foam played, slender, fleet; I saw--past Wordsworth and the rest-- Her natural, Greek, and silver feet.

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TO SILENCE

"SPACE, THE BOUND OF A SOLID": SILENCE, THEN, THE FORM OF A MELODY

Not, Silence, for thine idleness I raise 
My silence-bounded singing in thy praise, 
But for thy moulding of my Mozart's tune, 
Thy hold upon the bird that sings the moon, 
    Thy magisterial ways.

Man's lovely definite melody-shapes are thine, Outlined, controlled, compressed, complete, divine. Also thy fine intrusions do I trace, Thy afterthoughts, thy wandering, thy grace, Within the poet's line.

Thy secret is the song that is to be. Music had never stature but for thee, Sculptor! strong as the sculptor Space whose hand Urged the Discobolus and bade him stand. * * * * * Man, on his way to Silence, stops to hear and see.

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THE ENGLISH METRES

The rooted liberty of flowers in breeze 
  Is theirs, by national luck impulsive, terse, 
Tethered, uncaptured, rules obeyed ``at ease,'' 
  Time-strengthened laws of verse.

Or they are like our seasons that admit Inflexion, not infraction: Autumn hoar, Winter more tender than our thoughts of it, But a year's steadfast four;

Redundant syllables of Summer rain, And displaced accents of authentic Spring; Spondaic clouds above a gusty plain With dactyls on the wing.

Not Common Law, but Equity, is theirs-- Our metres; play and agile foot askance, And distant, beckoning, blithely rhyming pairs, Unknown to classic France;

Unknown to Italy. Ay, count, collate, Latins! with eye foreseeing on the time, And numbered fingers, and approaching fate On the appropriate rhyme.

Nay, nobly our grave measures are decreed: Heroic, Alexandrine with the stay, Deliberate; or else like him whose speed Did outrun Peter, urgent in the break of day.

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"RIVERS UNKNOWN TO SONG" James Thomson

Wide waters in the waste; or, out of reach, 
  Rough Alpine falls where late a glacier hung; 
Or rivers groping for the alien beach, 
Through continents, unsung.

Nay, not these nameless, these remote, alone; But all the streams from all the watersheds-- Peneus, Danube, Nile--are the unknown Young in their ancient beds.

Man has no tale for them. O travellers swift From secrets to oblivion! Waters wild That pass in act to bend a flower, or lift The bright limbs of a child!

For they are new, they are fresh; there's no surprise Like theirs on earth. O strange for evermore! This moment's Tiber with his shining eyes Never saw Rome before.

Man has no word for their eternity-- Rhine, Avon, Arno, younglings, youth uncrowned: Ignorant, innocent, instantaneous, free, Unwelcomed, unrenowned.

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TO THE MOTHER OF CHRIST THE SON OF MAN

    We too (one cried), we too, 
We the unready, the perplexed, the cold, 
Must shape the Eternal in our thoughts anew, 
    Cherish, possess, enfold.

Thou sweetly, we in strife. It is our passion to conceive Him thus In mind, in sense, within our house of life; That seed is locked in us.

We must affirm our Son From the ambiguous Nature's difficult speech, Gather in darkness that resplendent One, Close as our grasp can reach.

Nor shall we ever rest From this our task. An hour sufficed for thee, Thou innocent! He lingers in the breast Of our humanity.

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A COMPARISON IN A SEASIDE FIELD

'Tis royal and authentic June 
  Over this poor soil blossoming; 
Here lies, beneath an upright noon, 
  Thin nation for so wild a king.

Far off, the noble Summer rules, Violent in the ardent rose, His sun alight in mirroring pools, Braggart on Alps of vanquished snows;

Away, aloft, true to his hour, Announced, his colour, his fire, his jest. But here, in negligible flower, Summer is not proclaimed:--confessed.

A woman I marked; for her no state, Small joy, no song. She had her boon, Her only youth, true to its date, Faintly perceptible, her June.

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SURMISE

THE TRACK OF A HUMAN MOOD

Not wish, nor fear, nor quite expectancy 
  Is that vague spirit Surmise, 
That wanderer, that wonderer, whom we see 
  Within each other's eyes;

And yet not often. For she flits away, Fitful as infant thought, Visitant at a venture, hope at play, Unversed in facts, untaught.

In "the wide fields of possibility" Surmise, conjecturing, Makes little trials, incredulous, that flee Abroad on random wing.

One day this inarticulate shall find speech, This hoverer seize our breath. Surmise shall close with man--with all, with each-- In her own sovereign hour, the moments of our death.

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TO ANTIQUITY

". . . REVERENCE FOR OUR FATHERS, WITH THEIR STORES OF EXPERIENCES"
An author whose name I did not note

O our young ancestor, 
  Our boy in Letters, how we trudge oppressed 
With our "experiences," and you of yore 
  Flew light, and blessed!

Youngling, in your new town, Tight, like a box of toys--the town that is Our shattered, open ruin, with its crown Of histories;

You with your morning words Fresh from the night, your yet un-sonneted moon, Your passion undismayed, cool as a bird's Ignorant tune;

O youngling! how is this? Your poems are not wearied yet, not dead. Must I bow low? or, with an envious kiss, Put you to bed?

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CHRISTMAS NIGHT

"IF I CANNOT SEE THEE PRESENT I WILL MOURN THEE ABSENT, FOR THIS ALSO IS A PROOF OF LOVE"
Thomas Kempis

We do not find Him on the difficult earth, 
  In surging human-kind, 
In wayside death or accidental birth, 
  Or in the "march of mind."

Nature, her nests, her prey, the fed, the caught, Hide Him so well, so well, His steadfast secret there seems to our thought Life's saddest miracle.

He's but conjectured in man's happiness, Suspected in man's tears, Or lurks beyond the long, discouraged guess, Grown fainter through the years. * * * * * But absent, absent now? Ah, what is this, Near as in child-birth bed, Laid on our sorrowful hearts, close to a kiss? A homeless childish head.

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THE OCTOBER REDBREAST

Autumn is weary, halt, and old; 
  Ah, but she owns the song of joy! 
Her colours fade, her woods are cold. 
  Her singing-bird's a boy, a boy.

In lovely Spring the birds were bent On nests, on use, on love, forsooth! Grown-up were they. This boy's content, For his is liberty, his is youth.

The musical stripling sings for play Taking no thought, and virgin-glad. For duty sang those mates in May. This singing-bird's a lad, a lad.

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TO "A CERTAIN RICH MAN"

"I HAVE FIVE BRETHREN. . . . FATHER, I BESEECH THEE . . . LEST THEY COME TO THIS PLACE"
St. Luke's Gospel

Thou wouldst not part thy spoil 
Gained from the beggar's want, the weakling's toil, 
Nor spare a jot of sumptuousness or state 
For Lazarus at the gate.

And in the appalling night Of expiation, as in day's delight, Thou heldst thy niggard hand; it would not share One hour of thy despair.

Those five--thy prayer for them! O generous! who, condemned, wouldst not condemn, Whose ultimate human greatness proved thee so A miser of thy woe.

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"EVERLASTING FAREWELLS! AND AGAIN, AND YET AGAIN . . . EVERLASTING FAREWELLS!"
De Quincey

  "Farewells!" O what a word! 
Denying this agony, denying the affrights, 
Denying all De Quincey spoke or heard 
In the infernal sadness of his nights.

How mend these strange "farewells"? "Vale"? "Addio"? "Leb'wohl"? Not one but seems A tranquil refutation; tolling bells That yet withhold the terror of his dreams.

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THE POET TO THE BIRDS

You bid me hold my peace, 
  Or so I think, you birds; you'll not forgive 
My kill-joy song that makes the wild song cease, 
  Silent or fugitive.

Yon thrush stopt in mid-phrase At my mere footfall; and a longer note Took wing and fled afield, and went its ways Within the blackbird's throat.

Hereditary song, Illyrian lark and Paduan nightingale, Is yours, unchangeable the ages long; Assyria heard your tale;

Therefore you do not die. But single, local, lonely, mortal, new, Unlike, and thus like all my race, am I, Preluding my adieu.

My human song must be My human thought. Be patient till 'tis done. I shall not hold my little peace; for me There is no peace but one.

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AT NIGHT

To W. M.

Home, home from the horizon far and clear, 
    Hither the soft wings sweep; 
Flocks of the memories of the day draw near 
    The dovecote doors of sleep.

Oh, which are they that come through sweetest light Of all these homing birds? Which with the straightest and the swiftest flight? Your words to me, your words!

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Notes

In Honour of America, 1917
Written at the entrance of the United States into World War I, Meynell's sonnet provides a counterpoint to the cynicism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's much earlier sonnet. Rossetti's sonnet describes a disillusioned, divided, and dying world:

ON REFUSAL OF AID BETWEEN NATIONS
Not that the earth is changing, O my God!
Nor that the seasons totter in their walk,--
Not that the virulent ill of act and talk
Seethes ever as a winepress ever trod,--
Not therefore are we certain that the rod
Weighs in thine hand to smite thy world; though now
Beneath thine hand so many nations bow,
So many kings:--not therefore, O my God!--

But because Man is parcelled out in men
To-day; because, for any wrongful blow
No man not stricken asks, "I would be told
Why thou dost thus;" but his heart whispers then,
"He is he, I am I." By this we know
That our earth falls asunder, being old.

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Reflexions
In a letter to one of her daughters, Alice Meynell wrote "No one cares for 'Reflexions'.... [but] it has succeeded in singing the highest thought of intellectual passion and emotion of which I am capable."

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The Question
Meynell used the epigraph to this poem as the heading of an article printed in 1880 in The Pen. She insisted that the standard to which poetry should be held be quality of thought, saying "it is a great thing to be caught to a poet's heart; it is perhaps a greater to come close to his mind."

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To the Mother of Christ the Son of Man
Alice Meynell's work, Mary the Mother of Jesus (1912), combines art criticism with history, poems, and meditations. She attempts to explicate the value for the Catholic of the contemplation of the Madonna: "Sanctity, modesty, honour, chastity were the glories of her meek domination; by virtue of mercy and humility she reigned in Heaven."

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To 'A Certain Rich Man'
Alice Meynell called this poem "an ethical study but not a poem at all."

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