Thursday, 8 October 2015

National Poetry Day

When National Poetry Day was first instituted, a panel of notables on Radio Wales was stumped when asked to name their favourite poem. What immediately leapt to my mind was Robert Browning's celebration of love against war. Having a favourite poem is as dubious as having a favourite child, but this must come in my top ten. Browning's imagined ruined city is almost certainly set in his loved Italian countryside, but it could equally be a Welsh hill-top fortress.

Love among the Ruins

Where the quiet-coloured 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'er-spreads
         And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
         Stock or stone—
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
         Long ago;
Lust of glory pricked 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
         Viewed 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 looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
            Till I come.

But he looked upon the city, every side,
         Far and wide,
All the mountains topped 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.
O 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.

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