A John Piper painting of ruins

A John Piper painting, known for his moody depiction of post WWII ruins

Thomas Carlyle
From his Essay on Robert Burns

‘The poet, we cannot but think, can never have far to seek for a subject: the elements of his art are in him, and around him on every hand; for him the Ideal world is not remote from the Actual, but under it and within it nay, he is a poet, precisely because he can discern it there. Wherever there is a sky above him, and a world around him, the poet is in his place; for here too is man’s existence, with its infinite longings and small acquirings; its ever-thwarted, ever-renewed endeavours; its unspeakable aspirations, its fears and hopes that wander through Eternity: and all the mystery of brightness and of gloom that it was ever made of, in any age or climate, since man first began to live.’

With Thomas Carlyle’s words in mind, there are two poets that have been alive in my mind in recent days. Robert Browning, and A.E. Housman….two of their beautiful poems are presented here.

Truly, ‘the poet is in his place, for here too is man’s existence.’

These two poems share many threads of thought; this is but one example:

Housman: ‘Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I’

Browning: ‘When the king look’d, where she looks now’

Both use a dichotomy—from powerful Roman soldier to humble yeoman farmer, from lofty king to love-struck maiden—each share, at that moment, the same space. Each looks out to a similar view. Each poem emphasizes the frailty and transience of humanity, with all their strivings and conflicts, their stern strongholds that are now in fragments. But in the end, the poet asks, what remains?

There are two depictions of ruins: my own photos, from a burnt out former pear packing plant, and the phenomenal art of British artist John Piper. Piper was commissioned as an official war artist between 1940-1944.

All Saints Chapel, Bath 1942 John Piper 1903-1992 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05719

Bath, 1942, painting by John Piper

Love among the Ruins
By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

WHERE the quiet-colour’d end of evening smiles
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop 
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Ages since 
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war.

Now—the country does not even boast a tree,
As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills 
From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires 
O’er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
Bounding all,
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest,
Twelve abreast.

And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass 
Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o’erspreads
And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guess’d alone,
Stock or stone— 
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Long ago;
Lust of glory prick’d their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold 
Bought and sold.

Now,—the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek’s head of blossom winks
Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced 
As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
View’d the games.

And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
Smiles to leave 
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
Melt away—
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair 
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king look’d, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come. 

But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topp’d with temples, all the glades’
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,—and then, 
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face, 
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high 
As the sky,
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
Oh, heart! oh, blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns 
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest.
Love is best!


A. E. Housman (1859–1936). A Shropshire Lad. 1896.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger 
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare: 
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet: 
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

For an excellent discussion and analysis of Housman’s poem, check out David’s Hokku blog here.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s