Archive for the Poetry Category

April is the cruellest month

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on April 15, 2021 by telescoper
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

So begins Part I, The Burial of the Dead from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I thought of it yesterday when I was working in the garden, though I have no lilacs.

The poem is rightly regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th Century and Eliot one of the most important poets but in my opinion one thing he wasn’t good at was reading his own work. I always found his readings of his own work rather flat and dreary. He’s not the only poet I think that of either, but perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, here is T.S. Eliot reading all of The Waste Land so you can make your own mind up:

Easter Hymn, by A.E. Housman

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on April 4, 2021 by telescoper

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

Housman was an atheist. This poem was not published in his lifetime, but is the first poem in More Poems which was published shortly after his death.


Good Friday Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , on April 2, 2021 by telescoper

Garden Update: the daffodils are done but the tulips are still going…

Well, here we are. It’s Good Friday, the start of an extra-long weekend (Friday to Monday inclusive). I’m making it a bit longer by taking a few days off next week too. It’s officially Easter break so there are no lectures next week anyway.

I need a break. This term has been exhausting, and the busiest bit is yet to come. We return for four weeks of teaching then, after a short hiatus, we’re into the examination period followed by marking, Exam Boards and all the rest. Oh and there’s the small matter of yet another virtual Open Day at the end of this month.

I’ve put out-of-office replies on my work email and won’t be attending to messages there until I get back to work at the end of next week. Part of me feels a bit guilty for doing that, but only a very small part.

As it’s a nice day, I spent a couple of hours this morning doing some remedial work in the garden. I may have a late lunch out there too as the weather is nice and I recently invested in a garden table and chairs which I have yet to use properly. If the weather holds I might get the mower out and give the lawn a trim. Judging by the constant noise this morning it seems that everyone in the neighbourhood is doing that too. Some people seem to enjoy the sound of their own lawn mowers.

Talking of which I also trimmed my beard this morning, for the first time since Christmas. I have also acquired some clippers and may actually cut the hair on my head at some point over the weekend too.

That’s enough inconsequential rambling for today. Here is a poem on the subject of Good Friday by Christina Rossetti:

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Laocoön and his Sons

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , , on March 15, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I was remind of the above very famous statue which is on display in the Vatican. It dates from antiquity but was unearthed almost intact during an excavation in Rome in the 16th Century. It’s an extraordinary work that depicts a legendary episode in the Trojan wars of priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents. Evidently it was very cold that day…

This scene is described in Book II of Virgil‘s Aeneid which happens to be the text I studied for Latin O-level back in the day. Virgil’s verse takes the form of a strict (dactylic) hexameter which provides a rhythmic pulse perfectly designed for action sequences such as this. Before this part, Laocoön (whose name has to be spoken as four syllables – Lah-o-co-ohn – in order to scan correctly) warns the Trojans about their gift of a wooden horse using the most famous phrase in the entire Aeneid:

Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva 40
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: ‘O miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
Creditis avectos hostis? Aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? Sic notus Ulixes?
Aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi, 45
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis

Then, while about to sacrifice a bull to the god Neptune, he and his sons meet their grisly end:

Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt;
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

(You can find a translation into English here.)

The colour and energy of this verse, propelled by the remorseless rhythm, brings the horrific episode to life in truly compelling and typically gore-filled way. You don’t really have to be fluent in Latin to appreciate its quality. The line sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora is particularly brilliant. It’s no surprise that Virgil is regarded as such a literary superstar.

My Latin teacher at school pointed out that epic poetry like this would probably have been performed in the Roman era by an actor as a dramatic recitation, probably with a drum pounding out the rhythm and with various sound and lighting effects to boot.

Anyway, today is the Ides of March so I thought I’d keep up classical theme by posting this  priceless bit of British cultural history relevant to such a fateful day.

This is from the First Folio Edition of Carry On Cleo, and stars the sublime Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar delivering one of the funniest lines in the whole Carry On series. The joke may be nearly as old as me, but it’s still a cracker…



A Poem for St David’s Day

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s St David’s Day today, and a lovely spring morning it is too, so I wish you all a big

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

The daffodils in my garden have come out in celebration, apart from the clump under the tree which are reluctant to emerge:

It has become a bit of a St David’s Day tradition on this this blog to post a piece of verse but instead of the more usual R.S. Thomas I thought I’d carry on with the theme of daffodils with this wonderfully moving poem by Gillian Clarke inspired by Wordsworth’s famous poem and called Miracle on St David’s Day:

‘They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude’

The Daffodils by W. Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.

To Solitude – John Keats

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on February 24, 2021 by telescoper

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep, —
Nature’s observatory — whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

by John Keats (1795-1821)

Yesterday (23rd February) marked the bicentenary of the death of John Keats who passed away in Rome of tuberculosis at the age of just 25. The theme of the poem also fits the times we’re living in!


It’s raining…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2021 by telescoper

Taking a short break from examination marking I had a look outside. I’m not sorry to be cooped up indoors given that it’s pouring with rain. In fact it rained all night and morning and is set to continue in the same vein until tomorrow.

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew I was thinking about some idiomatic expressions for heavy rain. The most familiar one in English is Raining Cats and Dogs which, it appears, originated in a poem by Jonathan Swift that ends with the lines:

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip tops come tumbling down the flood.

My French teacher at school taught me the memorable if slightly indelicate Il pleut comme vache qui pisse, although there are other French expressions involving, among other things nails, frogs and halberds.

One of my favourites is the Welsh Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn which means, bizarrely, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”. There is also Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc – “It’s raining knives and forks”.

Related idiomatic expressions in Irish are constructed differently. There isn’t a transitive verb meaning “to rain” so there is no grammatical way to say “it rains something”. The way around this is to use a different verb to represent, e.g., throwing. For example Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí which means “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives”.

Talking (of) cobblers, I note that in Danish there is Det regner skomagerdrenge – “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices” and in Germany Es regnet Schusterjungs – “It’s raining cobblers’ boys”.

Among the other strange expressions in other languages are Está chovendo a barba de sapo (Portuguese for “It’s raining toads’ beards”), Пада киша уби миша (Serbian for “It’s raining and killing mice”),  Det regner trollkjerringer (Norwegian for “It’s raining female trolls”) and Estan lloviendo hasta maridos (Spanish for “It is even raining husbands”).

No sign of any husbands outside right now so I’ll get back to correcting exams.

End of Year Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Poetry on December 31, 2020 by telescoper

The Royal Canal, Maynooth, looking towards the Railway Station; the harbour is on the right.

The last morning of 2020 found Maynooth covered in a light dusting of snow. Since then the snow has turned to sleet and rain and the town looks a bit less picturesque as a consequence, not least because we haven’t really seen any proper daylight. My trip out this morning was a rare excursion from my house, but I’m glad I was able to get a bit of fresh (though freezing) air without there being lots of people around. I’ll be sitting cosily at home for the rest of the day (and, probability, tomorrow).

It’s extraordinary to think that this time last year there wasn’t an inkling of what was to come in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic. The first cases had been detected in China in December 2019 but I don’t think anyone seriously thought it would go global in the way it did. A year on and we’re still not out of it. Not by a long way. I think this are going to get a lot worse before they get better, but at least there are vaccines on the way.

Looking back over some of my posts from early in the year I’m reminded of two  events in particular- the 200th Anniversary Dinner of the RAS Club in January and the Irish General Election in February, both of which seem now to have happened at least a decade ago. I went to London again in mid-February, but had to cancel my planned trip back to the UK in March because FlyBe went bust. After that I made a couple of trips to Dublin (including a performance of Fidelio)  but since then I haven’t left Maynooth. It’s extremely likely that by March 2021 I will have spent an entire year without leaving the boundaries of Maynooth.

It’s almost a whole year since I posted a list of things I wanted to do in 2020. The first three were:

    1. Go to more live concerts.
    2. See more of Ireland.
    3. No more working weekends

That went well then! I don’t think I’ll bother making a list for next year, or perhaps I’ll just carry over this year’s. Obviously the Covid-19 restrictions and vastly increased workload involved in switching teaching to online put paid to most of my plans for 2020. Although I did manage to buy a house in Maynooth, I will have to wait until the Third Wave is over before I can retrieve the rest of my belongings from Wales and relocate fully.

Although I didn’t make an impact in this year’s Beard of the Year (finishing in last place in the final poll), at least I have the honour of being St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland for 2020.

You have to take what positives you can but I’m sure I’m not the only person to think, on balance, this has been a spectacularly awful year. I haven’t myself had Covid-19 but I know people who have and some of them are still struggling with the after-effects. I know many have also lost loved ones to the Coronavirus; condolences to everyone so affected. Although nothing to do with Covid-19, I still feel a very deep sadness that my former thesis supervisor John Barrow is no more. I hope after the pandemic there can be some form of proper tribute to him.

Anyway, to end with, here are a few verses from In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

The Darkling Thrush

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on December 7, 2020 by telescoper
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)


“And” Time Draws Nigh

Posted in History, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on November 30, 2020 by telescoper

It’s November 30th 2020, which means we have just three teaching weeks to go until the end of term. I am currently teaching two modules: Mechanics 1 and Special Relativity for first-year students and Vector Calculus and Fourier Series for second years. We’re now getting to the “and” bit in both modules.

I didn’t want to present the two topics mentioned in the title of the second year module as completely disconnected, so I decided to link them with a lecture in which I use the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

That gives me an excuse to repost the following “remarkable” poem about Fourier by William Rowan Hamilton:

In the first-year module I will be spending most of this week talking about potentials and forces before starting special relativity next week, at the proper time.

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension
Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth at times
Relax relieve the tension
And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed

As time goes by, the other thing drawing nigh is the loosening of Ireland’s current Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions which were imposed about six weeks ago though, judging by the crowds drinking in Courthouse Square on Saturday night, a lot of folks have thrown the rules out the window already.

I think it’s a dangerous time. The daily cases are still hovering around the 250-300 mark and will undoubtedly start climbing even before Christmas itself:

The chances of us getting back to anything resembling normality during the early part of next year are exceedingly slim.