Archive for the Favourite Poems Category

Tw Poems by Emily Brontë

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Quotations, Thoughts with tags , on October 28, 2017 by James Munro


Emily Bronte – the writer whom of all writers I would most like to meet and talk to, get to know, even perhaps become her friend:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As I—undying Life—have power in thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The stedfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou—THOU art Being and Breath,
And what THOU art may never be destroyed.

“Vain are the thousand creeds” she says – creeds – what we believe (from credo, I believe) – so what does she mean by “faith” as she uses that word in the first stanza?

This (from Ram Dass) made me think:

not a belief

A more philosophical discussion of the concept of “faith” coming up in the next post.

But I said TWO Emily Bronte poems, so here’s a second one. As you read it, savour the structure and rhythm; it is exactly the same as that of F W H Myers’ long poem St Paul, which I shall also come to in a future post.


Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along:
Sterner desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven;
No second morn has ever shone for me:
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy;

Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And even yet I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in Memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?


Two by Anon

Posted in Favourite Poems with tags , , on October 17, 2017 by James Munro

Two short sweet anonymous poems I came across in my wanderings through cyber-space.

Words and hearts should be handled with care
for words when spoken
and hearts when broken
are the hardest things to repair.

And then there’s this:

A Song of Innocence (William Blake)

Posted in Favourite images, Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , on February 22, 2017 by James Munro


This is the introductory poem to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It is a beautiful poem that I first learnt as a child and which only seems more beautiful after all these years:

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry chear.
“Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.

“Drop they pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy chear:”
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

“Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read.”
So he vanish’d from my sight
and I pluck’d a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

T. E. Hulme

Posted in Favourite images, Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , on February 16, 2017 by James Munro

“The Embankment” is a little poem Hulme wrote about being out and alone on the Thames Embankment at night. I came across the poem years ago and have never forgotten it.

The picture shows the Embankment one wet night in 1929. It is a favourite haunt of the temporarily homeless.

The Thames Embankment in 1929


Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

T. E. Hulme (1883–1917)

T. E. Hulme (1883–1917)

On 28 September 1917, four days after his thirty-fourth birthday, Hulme suffered a direct hit from a large shell which literally blew him to pieces. Apparently absorbed in some thought of his own he had failed to hear it coming and remained standing while those around threw themselves flat on the ground. What was left of him was buried in the Military Cemetery at Koksijde, West-Vlaanderen, in Belgium where — no doubt for want of space — he is described simply as ‘One of the War poets’ (Ferguson, Robert, The Short Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme)

A Different Dress by Hazel Palmer

Posted in Esoterica, Favourite Poems with tags , , on April 9, 2016 by James Munro

I shall be wearing
a different dress.
I’m used to this one –
very comfortable it was,
though not so any more –
and sometimes the removing
and the putting on
seem, from here
and now,
a tearing, a splitting,
or something like an amputation.

But there can be no question
that we shall recognise each other.
We’ll just be wearing
different clothes,
that’s all.

God Can’t

Posted in Favourite Poems, Thoughts with tags , , , on September 1, 2015 by James Munro

Why?” is a poem written many years ago by my sister Margaret – who died soon afterwards when a driver came out of a side-road without looking and hit her and killed her. She was twenty-five.


Why did our God make a world full of hate?
Was it because he discovered too late
The power of the devil to order our fate
And gave the world to him?
No. This can’t be so.

Why did our God let His only Son die?
Was it that men might pass coldly by?
Or historical warning that man should not try
Loving his enemies?
This cannot be so.

Why did He promise the Church His own power?
Was it to last just until that dread hour
When in Satan’s weapons man’s new strength did tower
To destroy his brother?
No. This was not so.

Why does He bless us with bountiful store?
Why does he then show the millions more
Who starving collapse in relief at death’s door?
That we turn then away?
No, this can’t be so.

Does God then bid us to live for the day?
Is His love temporarily under the sway
Of the world? And its hatred, its standards, our way,
Our protection?
This can ne’er be so.

Must we still learn to hate people unseen?
Must we not learn from our evil routine
Of destruction and want and the suffering these mean?
Must we not care?
This we must do.

Can we then trust in our God’s power alone?
Do we believe He is still on the throne?
That love conquers all, and that victory is won
When secure in His keeping we follow the Son
Love our one weapon until life is done,
And till His kingdom come? –
This will be so.

So far as I know, none of us ever “blamed” God for her death. Should we have? Listen to Stephen Fry:

Hm. And now read an “answer” to Stephen that was published in the Guardian. It was written by Giles Frazer and you can find the full article HERE.

  • What greater example of speaking truth to power could there be than this? And for absolutely no reward. For if Fry is right about God being an omnipotent bastard, then he could hardly expect to be rewarded for his honest observations. He tells the truth then burns in eternity. In this scenario, Fry is entirely heroic in his truth telling.
  • Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.
  • This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

This is no answer. In fact it is nonsense. It is nonsense because the man Jesus was not God, whom he normally refers to as “the Father” or “my Father”: at most Jesus is called the Son of God, more usually the Son of Man; what we mean by the word “God” is not “someone” whether a baby or a grown-up, poor or rich, helpless or powerful, mocked or mocker.

The truth is that the answer both to the questions Margaret asked in her poem and to the point being made by Stephen is:


If He could, He would.

Let’s go back to the nitty-gritty, the heart of Christianity: not “God helpless on a cross” as Giles Frazer would have us understand it, but the crucifixion of a man who had prayed “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me,” and on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, and who, at the end, cried out “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit!”


If God is good, He would have prevented the Crucifixion from ever happening. But He didn’t. Which means either He didn’t want to prevent it, or He couldn’t prevent it – it had to happen. In other words, either God is not omnibenevolent (wholly good) or He is not omnipotent (all-powerful).

What do I mean by “it had to happen”?

If you keep tossing a coin, it won’t keep coming down “heads”. It will eventually come down “tails”. It has to happen. And if you toss it often enough, it will eventually average 50% “heads” and 50% “tails”. It has to happen.

Now suppose that “heads” is Good and “tails” is Evil.

2 sides

That is how the universe is. There is nothing God can do about it.

One day, the sun will grow cold and that will be the end of the solar system as we know it. Energy cannot be given out without the source eventually becoming exhausted. It has to happen.

That, as I said above, is how the universe is. There is nothing God can do about it.

Don’t say He could have created a different universe. It is how any universe would be. Light without dark is impossible. As is heat without cold. Likewise, though more subjectively, joy without sorrow. And even more subjectively, beauty without ugliness. And how about intelligence without stupidity? Oh, that’s not the same! No? “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

This is the only possible universe. No doubt there are hotter worlds and colder worlds, worlds that are all desert with a few oases or none at all, or all sea with a few islands or none at all; and worlds that are all ice or all molten lava (and each of them no doubt a “best possible world” in its own way: imagine a seal in a desert or a desert fox in the Artctic). That is part and parcel of the universe. If there are other universes – a multiverse – the same applies, but on a larger scale: that will be the only possible multiverse. What happens there will be what has to happen: there will be nothing God can do about it.


No, I’m afraid He isn’t.

With that kiss …

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on February 26, 2015 by James Munro

Ramón Jiménez

(from the Spanish of Juan Ramón Jiménez)

With that kiss, your mouth
to my mouth, a rose-tree
was sown whose roots
gnaw at my heart.

It was autumn, the vast, empty sky
filled with sunlight
that sucked up all the gold of life
in columns of splendour.

Now, dry summer-time
has come, and the rose-tree – everything passes! –
has opened, too late
a bud of pain in each of my eyes.

Translation © James Munro

Grumpy cat as critic

Posted in Favourite images, Favourite Poems with tags , on February 7, 2015 by James Munro


The Raven


Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on February 2, 2015 by James Munro

jacques prevert

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the white coffee
With the little spoon
He stirred
He drank the white coffee
He put down the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit
A cigarette
He blew smoke-rings
With the smoke
He put the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put
His hat on his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I took
My head in my hands
And I wept.

Michael Daugherty

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , , on January 25, 2015 by James Munro

Two of my favourite poems from Michael Daugherty’s collection Lines from No-Man’s-Land. Read the whole thing if you can get hold of a copy!



In one room of a damned metropolis
a lonely madman works on a plan.

In an all-night corner coffee bar
a statistic prays for one last fix.

Under frozen branches in black park
pale fingers fumble with elastic.

Twelve inches away from the late-night news
a myopic spinster weeps in colour.

Someone somewhere begins a letter
to anyone’s silent son or daughter.


(for Vincent and the too many others)

A grass track
leads nowhere

beneath a blue-black
sick summer

sky; crows attack
the eye, defy

all the slick
laws of probability;

angry wheat
writhes beneath

the breath of fate,
the mistral of truth:

clues to the paradox
of a waking dream,

the brushstrokes
of a scream.

Thomas Hardy’s THE OXEN

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , , on December 24, 2014 by James Munro
Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset

Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset

An author I often turn to when I am in a nostalgic mood is Thomas Hardy – both for his novels and for his less well-known poems. If anyone is curious, my favourite novel of his is The Return of the Native. (Now it has come up I’ll post a review of it here as soon as I can get round to it, explaining why I like it so much.) But for now, as it is Christmas – Happy Christmas to you all! – here is his beautiful little Christmas poem, The Oxen.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees’,
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come! See the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Springtime Long Ago

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on December 6, 2014 by James Munro

Luis Cernuda

(from the Spanish of Luis Cernuda)

Now, in the purple sunset of the evening,
With the magnolias in flower and wet with dew,
To walk along those streets while the moon
Waxes in the heavens will be a waking dream.

Flocks of swallows with their keening will make 
The sky more immense; the water in the fountain
Will loose the deep voice of the earth; then
Sky and earth will fall silent.

In the corner of some cloister, alone
With your head in your hand, like a ghost
Returned, you will weep thinking
How beautiful life was, and how pointless.

Translation © James Munro

A cloister in Barcelona

Stop All The Clocks – W. H. Auden

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , , on November 12, 2014 by James Munro

This poem became wildly popular for a while after it was read at the funeral in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is number XI in a series of poems entitled Twelve Songs.

Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos, and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.

Let the aeroplanes circle, moaning, overhead,
Scribbling on the sky the message, He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves.
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last for ever. I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean, and sweep up the wood,
For nothing now can ever come to any good.



Dorothy Nimmo’s THE WIGBOX

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews with tags , on November 10, 2014 by James Munro

Dorothy Nimmo - Wigbox coverWhen I first came across Dorothy Nimmo, I thought she was like Sylvia Platt – only more so.

Mother has made you a house to live in
and she’ll make sure you live in it.
Mother has made you a bed to lie on,
she’ll cut bits off you if they don’t fit.

The obsession with pleasing – and being unable to please – her parents. The ever-present temptation to suicide.

Lying in the warm soapy water I do not
slit my wrists. I take only one sleeping pill.

The feeling that she shouldn’t be here at all – that it’s the wrong part in the wrong play:

This is the dressing-room I know is mine,
when they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?

When they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?

My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.
It’s not my part and this is not my play. 

But see the whole of this wonderful poem – “Dream Play” (below)

She had been an actress, spent ten years on the stage. Now as a poet and person she was not even one of the audience. She was outside the theatre in the dark, peering in through a window.

I was getting smaller and smaller
I went up the track on all fours
my petticoats torn off by the brambles
my hands bleeding.
(from “Pretend Games”)

The true outsider.

But if you turn out to be left-handed, if you suspect your name
may not be your real name,

if you can hear the cry of bats, if you can dowse
for water, if your dreams belong to somebody else,

if when you stand at the tide’s edge looking out to sea
you hear them calling to you, then you must come to me.

Put your hand in mine. I’ll say
It’s all right. it’s possible. We go this way.
(from “A Birthday Present for Roger John”)

So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.
(from “Message for a Daughter”)


To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , on October 25, 2014 by James Munro

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) wrote the poem “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”. Many years later another poet, John Heath Stubbs, who died in 2006 (and was blind for the last thirty years of his life) wrote his version of the poem. I like both.

James Elroy Flecker

James Elroy Flecker

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

John Heath Stubbs

John Heath Stubbs

I who am dead a thousand years
And wrote this crabbed post-classic screed
Transmit it to you – though with doubts
That you possess the skill to read,

Who, with your pink, mutated eyes,
Crouched in the radioactive swamp,
Beneath a leaking shelter, scan
These lines beside a flickering lamp;

Or in some plastic paradise
Of pointless gadgets, if you dwell,
And finding all your wants supplied
Do not suspect it may be Hell.

But does our art of words survive –
Do bards within that swamp rehearse
Tales of the twentieth century,
Nostalgic, in rude epic verse?

Or do computers churn it out –
In lieu of songs of War and Love,
Neat slogans by the State endorsed
And prayers to Them, who sit above?

How shall we conquer? – all our pride
Fades like a summer sunset’s glow:
Who will read me when I am gone –
For who reads Elroy Flecker now?

Clive James’s poem “Japanese Maple”

Posted in Favourite Poems with tags , on September 22, 2014 by James Munro

Japanese Maple

Clive James, who is suffering from terminal emphysema, will apparently be lucky to see the leaves of the maple tree in his garden turn to flame this coming autumn …

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags , , on September 8, 2014 by James Munro


Dylan Thomas

After that, I must post a Dylan Thomas poem. Here is one of his best known, a perfect villanelle entitled Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

James K. Baxter’s poem TOMCAT

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets with tags on September 6, 2014 by James Munro

Some poets – T. S. Eliot is a perfect example – publish only their very best work. The rest goes in the bin where, to be frank, most of it almost certainly belonged. Other poets – Robert Graves and Stephen Spender for instance – seem to publish everything. In order to find the gems, the poor reader has to wade through page after page of poems that can only be described as mediocre.

James K. Baxter

James K. Baxter

One such was James K. Baxter of New Zealand. I have here his “Selected Poems”, published by Oxford University Press. It contains 200 poems, which are presumably the ones the editor considered Baxter’s best work. (The “Collected Poems” apparently contains 600 poems!) Of the 200, no more than a dozen “make your hair stand on end”  (Emily Dickinson) – the dozen that make Baxter a great poet – and there are another twenty or thirty I would read again. The other 150? Already forgotten. But all that wasted time … No wonder people prefer to buy anthologies which present the reader with only the best of each poet.

Of course, none of the above applies to poets such as George Barker, whose separate collections were usually sequences and complete works in themselves, indivisible. A single poem from a collection such as Villa Stellar, Anno Domini or In Memory of David Archer, is lost when uprooted and planted out in an anthology among other quite different poems and poets.

Anyway, here is James K. Baxter at his inimitable best in Tomcat.


This tomcat cuts across the
zones of the respectable
through fences, walls, following
other routes, his own. I see
the sad whiskered skull-mouth fall
wide, complainingly, asking

to be picked up and fed, when
I thump up the steps through bush
at 4 p.m. He has no
dignity, thank God! has grown
older, scruffier, the ash-
black coat sporting one or two

flowers like round stars, badges
of bouts and fights. The snake head
is seamed on top with rough scars:
old Samurai! He lodges
in cellars, and the tight furred
scrotum drives him into wars

as if mad, yet tumbling on
the rug looks female, Turkish-
trousered. His bagpipe shriek at
sluggish dawn dragged me out in
pyjamas to comb the bush
(he being under the vet

for septic bites): the old fool
stood, body hard as a board,
heart thudding, hair on end, at
the house corner, terrible,
yelling at something. They said,
‘Get him doctored.’ I think not.


Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews, Translations with tags , , , on August 29, 2014 by James Munro

Danse Macabre coverThe world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten had been eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.


But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where is last year’s snow?”

Here is the second stanza in French and in English:

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Where is wise Heloise for whom
Pierre Abelard was gelded, then
Was made a monk in Saint-Denis?
For his love he bore this pain.
Similarly, where’s the Queen
Who ordered Buridan
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine?
But where is last year’s snow!

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution“. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. And I must tell you here that I had read this book, and enjoyed it immensely (and learnt a great deal from it) before I wrote my novel Thirteen-Card Spread, which is set in Paris just a few years earlier.

The Way

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on August 17, 2014 by James Munro

Antonio Machado

(from the Spanish of Antonio Machado)

The clock struck twelve … and they
were twelve blows of the spade
upon the earth … ‘My time!’ I cried …
Silence answered: ‘Do not be afraid;
you will not see fall that last drop
which trembles in the water-clock.

‘You will have time a-plenty
to sleep upon the old, familiar shore,
ere one cloudless morning you awake
to find your boat moored on the other side.’

Translation © James Munro