3 Poets: Keats, Macdonagh and Gurney

I have  tried to find a good reason why I put these three poems together.  Havent really got one!

The first is short and  has a surface narrative that intrigues and ends with a sense of foreboding.   This poem is telling of a brief event that has (for us) an untold history and a future destined  but not available to the character (author?) in the poem.  A poem that ends on a line that forces the reader to question the reason why the horn was dropped.  Should it have sounded a warning and failed?  The poem seems to be written as a recollection but the last line leaves doubt.  A guard, a passing witness, a man who finds himself in the midst of telling a story but unable to finish as the horn falls.  As the poet’s pen might drop to the desk, task unfinished.   Thats why I like this poem.

Inscription on a Ruin            Thomas Macdonagh   1878 – 1916


I stood beside the posters here,

High up above the trampling sea,

In shadow, shrinking from the spear

Of light, not daring hence to flee.


The moon beyond the western cliff

Had passed, and let the shadow fall,

Across the water to the skiff

That came onto the castle wall.


I heard below the murmur of words

Not loud, the splash upon the strand,

And the long cry of darkling birds,

The ivory horn fell from my hand.


Keats  is still a key poet.  Below is his well-known La Belle Dame Sans Merci.     I am not a regular reader of Keats so do not know if this is reworking a folk song or traditional story around in his day.  The contents would seem to be based on the romantic traditions of Arthurian legends; ficklety of women(?) and the dangers of meeting a faery!

La Belle Dame Sans Merci           John Keats   1795 – 1821

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.


Below is Macdonagh again.  A hundred years after Keats. The world is a different place.  This world is very real. The love is real and never lost despite the apparent ending of the last verse with its first line a comment on a mental descision and acceptance that love would be no more.  The last two lines however emphasise a love that needs no word or action (kiss) but will remain secure in time.


After  a Year of Love              Thomas Macdonagh   1878 – 1916

After a year of love
Death of love in a day;
And I who ever strove
To hold love in sure life
Now let it pass away
With no grief and no strife.

Pass — but it holds me yet;
Love, it would seem, may die;
But we can not forget
And can not be the same,
As lowly or as high,
As once, before this came.

Never as in old days
Can I again stoop low;
Never, now fallen, raise
Spirit and heart above
To where once life did show
The lone soul of my love.

None would the service ask
That she from love requires,
Making it not a task
But a high sacrament
Of all love’s dear desires
And all life’s grave intent.

And if she asked it not?–
Should I have loved her then?–
Such love was our one lot
And our true destiny.
Shall I find truth again?–
None could have known but she.

And she?– But it is vain
Her life now to surmise,
Whether of joy or pain,
After this borrowed year.
Memory may bring her sighs,
But will it bring a tear?

What if it brought love back?–
Love? — Ah! love died to-day–
She knew that our hearts lack
One thing that makes love true.
And I would not gainsay,
Told her I also knew.

And there an end of it–
I, who had never brooked
Such word as all unfit
For our sure love, brooked this–
Into her eyes I looked,
Left her without a kiss.

Third poet is Ivor Gurney.  This poem likely to have been written in the trenches of 1914-1918 war, could be the night before ‘over the top’.  Written to calm himself in the noise of a barrage before the tot of rum and into the unknown?  Is he convincing himself that though a poet (and composer) he is no weaker than other men or writing to an unseen public with the message that if he dies in battle he will die as a soldier and a poet?


To The Poet before Battle        Ivor Gurney


Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;

Thy lovely things must all be laid away;

And thou, as others, must face the riven day

Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,

Or bugles’ strident cry.   When mere noise numbs

The sense of being, the fear-sick soul doth sway,

Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say

Nothing in shame of poets.   Then the crumbs

Of praise the little verse men joined to take

Shall be forgotten:   then they must know we are,

For all our skill in words, equal in might

And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make

The name of poet terrible in just war,

And like a crown of honour upon the fight.

Three poets, four poems all with their own regular rhyme scheme and metre.   Each one telling a different tale and holding some sort of secret.   Todays poetry may appear to have less structure and regimented verse  but it is the connection with the poet through the writing that captures the reader’s imagination.




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