Deshabille, Mornings, Snow: Jean Whitfield

Three Poems by Jean Whitfield




Extraordinary to think

I hardly knew how to start

to take them off

with him relaxed and watching.

Would he understand

the clumsy shadows

or see something new

inspiring, over-inspiring

from my point of view

of readiness or lack of it

while I stood

one stocking wrinkling like old skin

and his large hands removing the rest

romance no use to him now

Wanting to get on with it.


Deshabillee I thought

fin de siecle, Toulouse-Lautrec

la nuit, a strange pince-nez

images that fit

and like Piaf I find

that looking back

I do not regret it.





In the mornings I exchange one man

for another when that small child

creeps within the cover

grins in the sunless dawn-grey room

pushes elbows, legs, feet

between our elbows, legs, feet

routs his father out

with his too early activity.


Plans a snore and calmly notes

hair-brown shadows

on that other man-shaped creature

rear into the day-cold air.


Crouches in the hollows

owning now quite all the spaces in the bed.


Finds a stomach a cushion for his knees

leans his head back a rock on my shoulder

a bold boy he winks at his mother

tells his dream of rabbits, guns, explosion

moves winningly, hugs with warm persistence

the ridden mattress, knows his heritage.





Days after the first fresh fall

the crunching feet the rosy glow

has turned to cinders


lumps of it hang on wire fences still

like the bridal dress

hangs at the back of the wardrobe.


reprinted with kind permission of Bakery Press



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Lorna Goodison: ‘I am becoming my mother’, a closer look

I am becoming my mother        By Lorna Goodson


Yellow/brown woman

Fingers smelling always of onions


Lorna Goodison cover pic

published by New Beacon Books 1986

My mother raises rare blooms

and waters them with tea

her birth waters sang like rivers

my mother is now me.


My mother had a linen dress

the colour of the sky

and stored lace and damask


to pull shame out of her eye.


I am becoming my mother

brown/yellow woman

fingers smelling always of onions.


This is a poem of fourteen lines.   A classic format is the sonnet, a poem of 14 lines, most expected as a love poem and considered to have a strict format of scan and rhyme, divided into two verses.  Such models as Shakespearean and Spencerian are common but several other variables are also set.  However, where does variation move a poem away from being a sonnet?

The paragraph above is probably slightly misleading but this poem does have fourteen lines and it’s subject would seem to be ‘love’ between mother and daughter/ daughter and mother.  Other than that it falls away from any standard sonnet form so is not a sonnet!

Another interesting section is the repeat of the first two-lined verse as the last verse but with an additional first line of: ‘I am becoming my mother’.    This line is the core of the poem and the repeating of the first verse’ two lines completes a circle……..     A circle that satisfies in many respects:  as the ending of the piece, a reinforcement of the original idea (image/emotion), and is a technique especially used in poems.  (Rondel, Rondeau are classic French verse styles).  Short stories may well use this repetition idea but using the idea rather than exact words:

‘I am becoming my mother  //   brown/yellow woman  // fingers smelling always of onions.’

In the second verse:

‘My mother raises rare blooms’      Seems to odd with her watering them with tea?

There may well be benefits to watering plants with tea and this is the initial image that we see.  A nice image but could it be the author is describing her mother raising her children with special care, attention and love, yes, even tea?  Problems and tempers are said to be solved ‘with a nice cup of tea’.  A subject repeat comes in this verse too, starting with ‘my mother’ to ‘blooms’ and the last line of the verse with ‘my mother is now me’.    Seemingly similar to the main idea of the poem but has less weight as in this line the emphasis is on ‘mother’ rather than ‘me’, the author.

Verses two and three have rhymes on lines two and four and two and five.    The other lines do not have pure rhyme but half-rhyme (or is it sibilance, assonance or alliteration?  I stick with half-rhyme)  with the words: blooms, rivers; dress, damask and tablecloths.

‘tablecloths’ gets a line to itself.    This brings the poem into fourteen lines but is likely to have been separated as it would make the previous line too long and visually unbalanced for the poem. It has enough weight and the assonance to appear alone plus it enables a slight pause before the next line that starts with the harder sounding ‘to pull’.  ( t of to pull echoing t of tablecloths).

Storing the lace and damask tablecloths, is common as saving the best for special occasions, visitors,  as would be the blue linen dress, it would seem.  Perhaps less common today.     The mother cares about what others may think of her and her home: ‘to pull shame out of her eye’.    This is a simplistic explanation and there is more that can be considered from this verse about a caring, hardworking woman, mother.

Returning to the last verse and it’s repeat of the first.  ‘Mother’ was previously the subject, now the author  ‘I’  has become the subject.  A simple image from the first verse has been amplified in some ten short lines into a description of a mother and family, a loving childhood and adulthood and more widely, on the ‘circle of life’ and its continuity.

Often acknowledged in life but beautifully celebrated here, is simply the fact that children frequently see the ways, genetic and learned habits, of their parents in themselves as they mature.  Not only see but feel. (In a similar way that parents can see the visual and emotional elements of themselves in their children.)


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Stranger to Europe, the poem, by Guy Butler; a closer look

Stranger to Europe.        Guy Butler.

poem from: Stranger to Europe 1939 -1945, poetry collection

numbers on right relate to notes below.


Stranger to Europe, waiting release,                        1,2

My heart a torn-up, drying root                                 3

I breathed the rain of an Irish peace                         4

That afternoon when a bird or a tree,

Long known as an exiled name, could cease            5

As such, take wing and trembling shoot                   6

Green light and shade through the heart of me.


Near a knotty hedge we had stopped.

‘This is an aspen.’ ‘Tell me more.’                               7

Customary veils and masks had dropped.

Each looked at the hidden other in each.                  8

Sure, we who could never kiss had leapt                   9

To living conclusions long before

Golden chestnut or copper beech.                               10


So, as the wind drove sapless leaves                            11

Into the bonfire of the sun,

As thunderclouds made giant graves

Of the black, bare hills of Kerry,                                  12

In a swirl of shadow, words, one by one

Fell on the stubble and the sheaves;

‘Wild dog rose this; this, hawthorn berry.’


But there was something more you meant,                 13

As if the tree’s and clouds had grown

Into a timeless flame that burnt

All worlds of words and left them dust

Through stubble and sedge by the late wind blown:

A love not born and not to be learnt

But given and taken, an ultimate trust.


Now, between my restless eyes                                        14

And the scribbled wisdom of the ages

Kerry Hills photo by Angela Jones

Kerry Hills
photo by Angela Jones

Black hills meet moving skies

And through rough hedges a late wind blows;

And in my palm through all the rages

Of lust and love now, always, lie

Brown hawthorn berry, red dog rose.


Rhyme scheme:

Five verses each hold seven lines.   The first two verses have a rhyme scheme of ABACABC and the last three use ABACBAC.   In the second, third and fourth verse the second ‘A’ ending is not a complete rhyme for that verse’s other ‘A’ so might be considered a half-rhyme.     With the difference in scheme in verses three and four it might be also offered that they have moved away from pure scenic description into more symbolic mode.  The last verse returns to the earlier norm of rhyme scheme and a subject of emotion refreshed and recognition of a form of love through the vicissitudes of war.

Analysis focus is on first two verses and lessens through verses three, four and five.   More attention/analysis could easily be given to all, especially later verses but space is limited.  Something for the reader to continue, maybe finding differing interpretations.  Such is poetry.  Comments welcome.

Brief overview:

The author arrives into a peaceful Ireland (Kerry) after a long war (WW2), with others (of his ‘unit’). Conversation (with locals or others familiar with names of trees, bushes etc),  on ‘ordinary’ scenery and weather creates an emotional relaxation not known for some time.  However, this discovery of emotion in peacetime slips into a symbolism of his previous years and the realisation of trust and companionship between soldiers, in war in particular.

This triggers an emotional acknowledgment that a bond, a form of love and unity, has been established in him (and all) for such close army companions, that will always be there.

  1. ‘Stranger to Europe’:    Title poem of collection, placed last quarter of book. The author is from South Africa, several generations ago originating from Stoke and area, England.
  2. ‘waiting release’:       From life in the army, most likely……..
  3. Line harking to effects of war or of being so long away from South African homeland.
  4. Ireland; well known for its rainfall, especially S.West, Kerry.  Peace as countryside and or just not being at war…
  5. ‘Long known as an exiled name’ :  Exiled as in distance from the author? as the author and forebears being ‘exiled’ from their origins or perhaps also exiled from the author’s state of mind because of circumstances? Also a form of recognition that the author is also exiled from his own home in South Africa.
  6. From ‘could cease/As such to…… heart of me’.   Sudden remembrance of such things as ‘nature’ and a sudden mental and physical awakening in the author.

Second verse:

  1. ‘an aspen’. A tree;  they do not grow in South Africa despite being widespread throughout Europe, northern Asia and north Africa.  The interest shows a mental arousal, relaxation, growing re-awakening of awareness of  ‘new countryside’ around them.
  2. The men see each other’s reactions to this sudden relaxation into their surroundings. Shadows of war are falling away.

9/10.  ‘We who could never kiss’.  ……  To………’or copper beech.”    Each man realised how close they were to each other, deeply attached but not physically.   Perhaps the line of ‘Golden chestnut or copper beech’ echoes the colours of women’s hair that they missed.  Or that they recognised their feelings quickly, before many other trees were pointed out to them. Both, is likely.  Their sudden realsation that warfare is over and they are back in a peaceful world has released emotions they had steadfastly withdrawn from.

Third verse:

  1. First two lines can be as literal description or symbolising ‘leaves’ as men and dying into the sun. With the third line weighing it down with thunderclouds and the illusion of hills as giant graves, it seems the memory of warfare and death mingles with ‘dog rose and hawthorn berry’.

The tone of the poem is ‘deadened’ in this verse and use of ‘leaves‘ touches on a WW1 style of remembered poems and war poets.   The darkness of the clouds seems to have brought memories  creeping back where the men have begun to relax their control on their emotions.  Again, real and symbolic.   We are given the place of the poem; Kerry, the S.W. corner of Ireland.  As there is stubble in the fields it is likely to be after harvest, autumn sometime but before ploughing.   Stubble could also reflect the losses of war.

Fourth verse:

  1. A change of step again. From the memory of the clouds, the rain and wind and gloom comes the firm realisation, conviction, that some good had been born in those bad times.

The poet states ‘a love not born and not to be learnt/ But given and taken, an ultimate trust.‘  was created between them all during their soldiering.  A special bond that held them together through life and death.  The element of gloom in the previous verse, even the quickening of emotion in first two verses has moved forward to a sense of wider understanding of himself.   The ‘you‘ may hark back to the describer of trees in first verse but may well be the author talking of some other entity, god or Nature or his own consciousness.

Fifth verse:

  1. Here is the final understanding and acknowledgment by the author that he will carry with him a memory, a fixed image which ties him to that unique love among comrades: ‘Brown hawthorn berry, red dog rose.’  We may add to the strength of this image as the brown symbolises uniform and red, blood (of soldiers). The brown and red are simple additions to a repeated line from the end of verse three.   A war poem?  A love poem?



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Three Poems by Jean Whitfield

From    Moments,   Selected poems of Jean Whitfield

Permission to reprint poems kindly given by Bakery Press.

It is so tempting to lift every poem in sequence from this ‘collected works’ as they all deserve a wider audience.   Sadly, I am limited in number and space per ‘post’ so have kept with my ‘Three Poems’ format, sometimes with additional poems, maybe with other poets ( a relaxed format, admittedly).

This is the first of several from Jean Whitfield over time.

It is important that any poem can be read as an independent piece even when collections are ‘themed’ in some way.  As a complete collection ‘Moments’ is unlikely to be bettered.  Themes will always exist in a poet’s poems but a serial poem or one extensive like a ‘saga’  will have ‘extractions’ to find a place in an anthology or post such as this.

I always try to include complete poems but do quote extracts if fitting.

Jean Whitfield’s poetry has a tone of its own. I hope this and future posts of her work will secure her place.



Wind in their bones

birds see-saw the air

a mass of moving ciphers

altogether on the sky.


Between them grim-beaked

and desperate against the air

and all their movement

heads a loner

going the other way.



Tor Chantry                                 


Their feet were bleeding, torn,

their hands wound like rope

in the brown shrouds they wore.


Raw wind shred voices

Like bird’s wings

Above bare hills

where they walked

each hooded man

counting sins.


Granite muscled the land

thin soil lay a fine skin

where the line

of broken shards veined.


Five miles they trod

thorn and broom

to the chantry, hungering.

Blood flecked rocks they climbed

bracelets of blood:

a temporary offering.


And the buzzard for its survival

scanned barren moors, homes in.

Took the yellowest, limp-necked lamb

greased with its cleansing

outside the Chantry door.



Winter Yard                                      

First a solid river that swans slapped

warming ice with rapid feet

a courtyard with a bench, an unlit lamp

and long thin runnels between the polished cobbles

which silent water painted grey

and lay there dark with buildings.


Then the sun shone suddenly

and balconies broadcast wrought iron tendrils

over frozen water become sprinkled heaps of gemstones


and a long black window opened

for a woman’s arm to put out a pot of flowers

to spread the place with red and gold.



Three different ‘wintry’ scenes.

Bird:      Brief, simple observation of a scene in this poem.    Or, looking at the word  ‘ciphers’   and then  ‘grim-beaked’  we can see an alternative meaning as the poem’s last lines of  ‘heads a loner/ going the other way’     This moves it into the personal world of the author but still further into the wider world of the ‘loner’, be they in the arts or by temperament.  With this change of meaning the poem could well sink into a bleakness, especially because of the word ‘desparate’ but that image is perhaps held at bay by the use of ‘grim-beaked’.   For me ‘grim-beaked’ is a sign of inner strength, determination and courage to proceed.  Right or wrong in this poem does not come into it.  Against the crowd?  So be it.


Tor Chantry:        Chantrya chapel or altar endowed for the chanting of masses for the founder’s soul   (source: Longman Concise Engl Dict.)

Longer, darker, with rhymes and half-rhymes scattered through.  The last verse taking you abruptly away from the human effort of survival to the real world of survival.   Throughout the poem it is the landscape that has priority.  In the last verse you can put the emphasis on ‘its’  in: ‘for its survival’ and the men and their toil are literally out of the picture, forgotten.    More can be threaded out of this poem, as in many a good poet’s work.


Winter Yard:      The first verse offers delightful image of swans ‘warming ice with rapid feet’.  You can see them slipping and trying to progress as their webbed feet fail to take hold and slide away from them ever faster. The next few lines describe acutely the place and view.

The middle verse is three lines, only one sentence and perhaps a little difficult to read first time around but the change of tempo and the compressed images capture that very moment of a fresh view of a scene when the sun flashes on it.

Last verse, linking with the balcony (in my mind), maybe below or on a level with it.   The ‘black’ window actually contrasts positively with the grey and ice previously which flows into the softness and color of the final two lines.

All unrhymed; little punctuation so the reader can find their own pauses and a beautiful little poem.



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2016 TS Eliot prize winner: ‘Jackself’

2016 TS Eliot prize won by Jacob Polley’s       ‘Jackself’

jackselfJackself, described by chair of judges Ruth Padel as ‘incredibly inventive and very moving’, takes the largest prize in poetry of £20,000.  As well as largest in prize money in the UK it is likely regarded as the most coveted award of all.

Chair of judges, Ruth Padel and the panel of fellow poets Julia Copus and Alan Gillis, said Jackself was “a firework of a book; inventive, exciting and outstanding in its imaginative range and depth of feeling”.

This is third time lucky for the poet, first shortlisted for his debut collection The Brink in 2003, and again with The Havocs in 2012.

Rachael Boast Void Studies / Picador

Rachael Boast was born in Suffolk in 1975. Her first collection, Sidereal, was published by Picador in May 2011 and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize. Her second collection, Pilgrim’s Flower  (Picador, 2013) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. Void Studies, realising a project that Arthur Rimbaud proposed but never got round to writing, was published in 2016 (Picador).   She lives in Bristol.


Vahni Capildeo Measures of Expatriation / Carcanet

Vahni Capildeo is a Trinidadian British writer whose five books and two pamphlets include Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016), Simple Complex Shapes (Shearsman, 2015) and Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013).    She was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection for Measures of Expatriation in 2016.

Ian Duhig The Blind Road-Maker / Picador

Ian Duhig worked with homeless people for fifteen years before devoting himself to writing activities full-time. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize once and the National Poetry Competition twice. Two books with Picador, The Lammas Hireling (2003) and The Speed of Dark (2007), were both PBS Choices and shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and he has published eight poetry collections in all.  He lives in Leeds.


J O Morgan Interference Pattern / Cape Poetry

J.O. Morgan lives on a small farm in the Scottish Borders. He is the author of five collections of poetry, each a single book-length poem. His first book, Natural Mechanical (2009), won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize; its sequel, Long Cuts (2012), was shortlisted for a Scottish Book Award. His third book from C B Editions, At Maldon. In 2015, Morgan published In Casting Off (HappenStance Press), a poem-novella.  Interference Pattern (Cape) was published in 2016.


Bernard O’Donoghue The Seasons of Cullen Church / Faber

Bernard O’Donoghue was born in Cullen, Co Cork in 1945, later moving to Manchester. He has published six collections of poetry, including Gunpowder (Chatto & Windus), winner of the 1995 Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and Farmers Cross (Faber), which was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2011. He has published a verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics 2006). The Seasons of Cullen Church (Faber) was published in 2016. He lives in Oxford.


Alice Oswald Falling Awake / Cape Poetry

Alice Oswald lives in Devon. Her first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), received a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Her collections include Dart, which won the 2002 T. S. Eliot Prize and was a Poetry Book Society Choice, Woods etc. (Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Hawthornden Prize), Weeds and Wildflowers, illustrated by Jessica Greenman (Ted Hughes Award) and, most recently, Memorial, (the 2013 Warwick Prize for Writing), a reworking of Homer’s Iliad that has received high critical praise.   All published by Faber.  Falling Awake (Cape) was published in 2016.


Jacob Polley Jackself / Picador

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. He is the author of four poetry collections, The Brink (2003), Little Gods (2006), The Havocs (2012) and Jackself (2016), all published by Picador. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2002, and both The Brink and The Havocs were shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. In 2004, he was named one of the ‘Next Generation’ of the twenty best new poets in the UK and Ireland.  He now lives in St Andrews and works in Newcastle.


Denise Riley Say Something Back / Picador

Denise  edited Poets on Writing: Britain 1970-1991 (1992).  Her collections of poetry include Dry Air (Virago 1985); Mop Mop Georgette: New and Selected Poems 1986-1993 (1993); Selected Poems (2000), both Reality Street Editions, and Say Something Back (Picador 2016). She is currently Professor of the History of Ideas and of Poetry at UEA.  Denise Riley lives in London.


Ruby Robinson Every Little Sound / Liverpool University Press

Ruby Robinson was born in Manchester in 1985, grew up in Sheffield and Doncaster and now lives in Sheffield.  (Chicago) and elsewhere. Every Little Sound (published by Pavilion Poetry, the new imprint from Liverpool University Press) is her first collection and it was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prizes 2016.


Katharine Towers The Remedies / Picador

Katharine Towers was born in London.   Her first collection, The Floating Man (Picador 2010), won the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry, and was shortlisted for both the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, as well as being longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Her second ‘The Remedies’ is also published by Picador.  She lives in the Peak District.

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On the Eve of St Agnes by John Keats

If it is 20th January, it is a suitable time to put this up.   One of Cambridge ‘A’ level poems for 2016, not sure if it still fits the themes for future exam study.  But this is one of many memorable and once popular poems from John Keats (1795-1821).

On the Eve of St Agnes

St Agnes’ Eve –  Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no –  already had his deathbell rung
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.

That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
The silver, snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.

At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new-stuff’d, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.

They told her how, upon St Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fix’d on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by –  she heeded not at all: in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
And back retir’d; not cool’d by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere;
She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.

She danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
The hallow’d hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the throng’d resort
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
‘Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwink’d with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.

So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger’d still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttress’d from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss –  in sooth such things have been.

He ventures in: let no buzz’d whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love’s fev’rous citadel:
For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage: not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.

Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch’s flame,
Behind a broad hall-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland.
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp’d his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying, “Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
“They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!

“Get hence! get hence! there’s dwarfish Hildebrand;
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
Then there’s that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his gray hairs –  Alas me! flit!
Flit like a ghost away.” — “Ah, gossip dear,
We’re safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
And tell me how” — “Good saints! not here, not here;
Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier.”

He follow’d through a lowly arched way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume,
And as she mutter’d “Well-a- – well-a-day!”
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, lattic’d, chill, and silent as a tomb.
“Now tell me where is Madeline”, said he,
“O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
“When they St Agnes’ wool are weaving piously.”

“St Agnes! Ah! it is St Agnes’ Eve  —
Yet men will murder upon holy days:
Thou must hold water in a witch’s sieve,
And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays
To venture so: it fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro! – – St Agnes’ Eve!
God’s help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
This very night: good angels her deceive!
But let me laugh awhile, I’ve mickle time to grieve.”

Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
Who keepeth clos’d a wondrous riddle-book,
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
His lady’s purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.

Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot: then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
“A cruel man and impious thou art:
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go, go! — I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.”

“I will not harm her, by all saints I swear,”
Quoth Porphyro: “O may I ne’er find grace
When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
Good Angela, believe me by these tears;
Or I will, even in a moment’s space,
Awake, with horrid shout, my foemen’s ears,
And beard them, though they be more fang’d than wolves and bears.”

“Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never miss’d.”  Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentler speech from burning Porphyro;
So woeful, and of such deep sorrowing,
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe.

Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy
That he might see her beauty unespied,
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
While legion’d fairies pac’d the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.

“It shall be as thou wishest,” said the Dame:
“All cates and dainties shall be stored there
Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead.”

So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
The lover’s endless minutes slowly pass’d;
The Dame return’d, and whisper’d in his ear
To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.

Her falt’ring hand upon the balustrade,
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, St Agnes’ charmed maid,
Rose, like a mission’d spirit, unaware:
With silver taper’s light, and pious care,
She turn’d, and down the aged gossip led
To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed;
She comes, she comes again, like dove fray’d and fled.

Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She closed the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
No utter’d syllable, or, woe betide!
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven: — Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex’d she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain;
Clasp’d like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.

Stol’n to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress,
And listen’d to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumbrous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breath’d himself: then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
And over the hush’d carpet, silent, stept,
And ‘tween the curtains peep’d, where, lo! — how fast she slept!

Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguish’d, threw thereon
A doth of woven crimson, gold, and jet: —
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarinet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone: —
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light. —
“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”

Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.

Awakening up, he took her hollow lute, —
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”
Close to her ear touching the melody: —
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.

Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep,
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.

“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet, —
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St Agnes’ moon hath set.

Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine. —
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing; —
A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”

“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shap’d and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famish’d pilgrim, —  saved by miracle.
Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.

“Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand; —
The bloated wassailers will never heed: —
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see, —
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”

She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears —
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found. —
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop’d lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Flutter’d in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.

They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flagon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts fill easy slide: —
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones, —
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

Posted in Pre-1914 | Tagged | Leave a comment

Moments; collected poems of Jean Whitfield


Collected poems of  Jean Whitfield

Published Bakery Press      1985    paperback

Note on back cover, as handwritten by Jean Whitfield:

jean-whitfield-moments-cover“There are many things to say; many things and people to record.  The question is where to begin?  Is it to be a mixture of story, speech making, poems and even characters in a play?  Will it be self-indulgent, over emotional, sentimental, full of feeling both wasted and enjoyed?  The answer is bound to be yes because that is one of the reasons for it:  perhaps after all it isn’t too heretical…….

……….. getting all the images wrong, muddling the tenses but using the spaces in between the words to search for one’s own identity. “

These words are on the back cover of a what appears to be a one-off book from Bakery Press.  A forward gives more information on the author of the collected poems of Jean Whitfield.  She died in 1984 of leukaemia at the age of 43, this collection published posthumously.  Only four of these poems had appeared in magazines prior to this book which contains 118 poems.    I like to think her words appearing as a forward give an insight into her personality as compasssionate, an active socialist politically and passionate about poetry, especially in its role to provoke change.  When writing this, up to the early 1980s, England was  in great internal turmoil.  She  saw the need for socialists, socialist poets especially, to speak out:   “I want poets to be in the vanguard of change – not just influenced by it –  …….For poetry in England to be effective it will have to become dangerous …………… because our socialism is poorer without it.”  There have been several in the spotlight over the years as there have been comedians of similar conviction. Politics is integral to living and the latest to carry this banner is Kate Tempest.

Living in a small village her poetry, her reflections were by no means limited.  She covered many themes close to her, of family, locale and ‘moments’ that touched her.  Her poetics might be considered of her day, much blank verse, often short lines, many without punctuation where the reader has to find their own way into the poem.  Those lines quite short are pleasingly re-readable to find their own pauses and breathing spaces.  Others, fewer, with more punctuation and  occasional rhyme.  Whether the rhymes are designed or just natural I couldn’t know.  I like to believe they are deliberate, as crafted as the moment of construction allowed.  As many a poet she dipped her pen into the descriptive world of ‘Nature’ leaving some finely drawn examples, several of which would sit well in anthologies. She frequently wrote with an edge that pulled you into an understanding that was not pure imagery but allowed the sound and feel of words to underline the jagged side of the world.  Jagged lines that might jump across images and make you falter where the meaning you followed suddenly changes course. Deliberate?  Maybe not,  but the words pull you through, like watching a bird suddenly take fright and plunge away before settling on it’s course.

The collection is divided into themes:  girdled with hope,   And now for joy,   Full-steam-ahead-house,  into the eye of the month, theses special ones,  through many gates, no end to my river.   I should also note the selection of fine drawings, as a full page or little inclusions to top or tail a poem. Plus b&w photos around the area.  A fine collaboration in all its content and production.

There are many poems here I would dearly love to introduce to you from this (complete) collection by Jean Whitfield.  Many from the themed sections would benefit by being read in a sequence, such as the poems in ‘the special ones‘.  Others memorable being:  Last Summer and Pulse and the final poem on her thoughts on anticipated death: Voice.    I would select even more from earlier in the book but offer one from near the end:


Ah! You poets poor things

how you struggle with words

like a farmer

with his dog

rounding the sheep

-there is always a stray one

and the farmer calls his dog

it turns, hesitates

water sparkles and sprays

where he races

and the farmer shades his eyes

and sees the drops of water

spinning under the shining, shifting sky.

Whether the countryside, scenes from her windows, her life, weather or wildlife around her; on the natures of man, or rather women, and god and of course life and death;  thoroughout is an acceptance of the beauty and harshness of nature but less so  humanity, except for love.   For me she is the voice and eye of a poet who deserves to be remembered.  I trust the Poetry Library has a copy of this book so Jean Whitfield will be re-discovered when her time comes round again.

Posted in Book reviews, Current, Poetry, Poets (female only), Post-1945 | Tagged | Leave a comment