In late July, Joni Mitchell performed at the Newport Folk Festival, her first appearance in nine years due to illness. She was brought there by singer Brandi Carlile and accompanied by a large group of musicians and singers. Her voice is enriched by her years of experience. This extraordinary event was recorded and is viewable on YouTube. Joni is one of the best songwriters we’ve had in the past century. Her lyrics speak to us at our most vulnerable, embarrassed, despairing, but hopeful in spite of what we’ve been through.
“Both Sides Now” is a musical classic and a lovely poem.
Two of my favorites over the years are “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and “Amelia.”
The Last Time I Saw Richard (lyrics)
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
You laugh he said you think you’re immune
Go look at your eyes they’re full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies pretty lies
When you gonna realize they’re only pretty lies
Only pretty lies just pretty lies
He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr
And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie
And she said, “Drink up now it’s getting on time to close”
“Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said
It’s just that now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head
You got tombs in your eyes but the songs you punched are dreaming
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet Love so sweet
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafés dark cafés
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase these dark café days
Copyright June 1971 Joni Mitchell
Other favorites of mine are "River" on her Blue album, and "Just Like This Train" on her Court and Spark album. An amazing version of "Just Like This Train" with her signature slap/scat jazz guitar style was recorded on the Dave Letterman show. She plays it at Newport as well, having had to relearn how to play the guitar after a brain aneurysm. One video of "Amelia" has her playing guitar while she sings and then walking away to let guitarist Pat Metheny finish it beautifully.
I was driving across the burning desert When I spotted six jet planes Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain Like the hexagram of the heavens Like the strings of my guitar Amelia, it was just a false alarm
The drone of flying engines Is a song so wild and blue It scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you Then your life becomes a travelogue Full of picture post card charms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
People will tell you where they’ve gone They’ll tell you where to go But till you get there yourself you never really know And where some have found their paradise Others just come to harm Amelia, it was just a false alarm
I wish that he was here tonight It’s so hard to obey His sad request of me to kindly stay away So this is how I hide the hurt As the road leads cursed and charmed I tell Amelia it was just a false alarm
A ghost of aviation She was swallowed by the sky Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly Like Icarus ascending On beautiful foolish arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Maybe I’ve never really loved I guess that is the truth I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes And looking down on everything I crashed into his arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm
I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel To shower off the dust And I slept on strange pillows of my wanderlust I dreamed of 747s Over geometric farms Dreams Amelia, dreams and false alarms
Summer is here ablaze and awash in the Northern hemisphere. These songs and poems celebrate that season, the heat and rain, floods and fires, family picnics and travel to mountains or the coast. I’ve added a travel song as well.
To start out with the coolest, who better than Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performing Gershwin’s “Summertime”?
Marge Piercy's poem, "More Than Enough," captures summer's bounty.
The first lily of June opens its red mouth.
All over the sand road where we walk
multiflora rose climbs trees cascading
white or pink blossoms, simple, intense
the scene drifting like colored mist.
The arrowhead is spreading its creamy
clumps of flower and the blackberries
are blooming in the thickets. Season of
joy for the bee. The green will never
again be so green, so purely and lushly
new, grass lifting its wheaty seedheads
into the wind. Rich fresh wine
of June, we stagger into you smeared
with pollen, overcome as the turtle
laying her eggs in roadside sand.
A poem about Florida summer, Lynda Hull's "Insect Life of Florida"
In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander
I’d see them clustered yellow, blue, their shells
enameled hard as the sky before the rain.
All that summer, my second, from city
to city my young father drove the black coupe
through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever
parceled between luggage and sample goods.
Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,
my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew
something of love was cruel, was distant.
To read the rest, go to the Poetry Foundation link for Insect Life of Florida.
Here goes! My poem, "Summer Rain."
Crickets sing counterpoint to the chorus of the heat,
a rush of wind, the scent of sea and pine forest
waking brains that have gone to sleep.
A silence with ears—twitching ears of a doe,
revolving heads of owls, a panthers’ stealthy prowl.
Thunderclouds tumble into a mass, a quick sea breeze
and the surface of the heat falls, the chorus fades,
steer huddle in the pasture beyond the railroad tracks,
white herons rise from the field, broken bits of bread,
angelic hosts flung to the winds.
Lightning finds the seam, scars the sky,
magnetizes the children’s eyes.
The storm rolls over the land, resounding
in the shells of their brains, and rain courses
from open veins. Rain-worshippers,
they drink it, wine of their lives.
And now for some traveling music, "City of New Orleans," written by Steve Goodman and sung by Arlo Guthrie.
Jimmy Buffet (this version with the Zac Brown Band):
And now for a more serious side, the serious side of the sea and its power, it covers 70% of the planet.
“A Salty Dog” by Procol Harum
I was thinking of Stephen Crane’s famous short story, “The Open Boat,” which is available online to read for free, and how in his life I think he wanted to believe in heroes but often saw something else. In “The Open Boat” there were heroes. I wrote a fantasy in which he played an even larger part:
Evening comes, channel bells toll, dozing,
off the coast of Florida, he is dreaming,
dreaming down beneath the ship
where shadows breathe and surf echoes,
the ocean’s roar in a huge shell of coastline,
but the dream of dark and peaceful depths
is shredded by howling in a larger shell,
bell of the sky, and he rises to a shuddering deck
into slashing rain and great rolling waves,
and in the water men with outflung hands,
in the night they are all around,
bodies twined around with seesawing lights,
skeletons dancing, constellations exploding.
The ship is wrecked, will they all drown?
He jumps to the lifeboat, pulls a man to safety,
a fist of a wave knocks him overboard
and he collides with the body of another man,
he holds the wounded sailor, cradles his shoulders
in the rollicking surf, swimming at cross purposes
to the sea, battered by wind and waves,
he keeps the man in his grip
as ghosts hover, seahorses teem in the rain,
and the hours smash his body, moonlight flowers
until dawn breaks amber and green,
and they are plucked from the sea into the lifeboat
and safe but shaken the survivors hear the sea
speak in all the voices of the world,
connecting those adrift to those onshore.
From “The Open Boat,” by Stephen Crane
“When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”
On January 2, 1897, American writer Stephen Crane survives the sinking of The Commodore off the coast of Florida. He will turn the harrowing event into his class short story, “The Open Boat” (1897).
And by Derek Walcott:
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
White heat. A green river.
A bridge, scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house drowsing through August.
Days I have held, days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters, my harbouring arms.
And by Lewis Carroll:
A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky
A boat beneath a sunny sky, Lingering onward dreamily In an evening of July —
Children three that nestle near, Eager eye and willing ear, Pleased a simple tale to hear —
Long has paled that sunny sky: Echoes fade and memories die: Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear, Eager eye and willing ear, Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream — Lingering in the golden gleam — Life, what is it but a dream?
I grew up in Florida and know the state has many layers. It’s a complex place with a long history, going back to ancient indigenous civilizations and early Spanish explorers in search of treasure and the Fountain of Youth.
Florida gets a bad rap in the media and recent events haven’t helped dispel the reputation of the state as a place where people do crazy things. When I was 12, I began to write about it. What evolved was a long poem, “The Sailor Circus,” named for the Sarasota high school afterschool circus program (which still exists). In my 20s, an agent encouraged me to write a novel based on the poem, but she later decided not to take it on. For many years both the poem and novel languished among my papers and computer files. A few years ago I used much of it in a novella, Covenant: Growing up in Florida’s Lost Paradise. These past few weeks I added in more of the original words, adapting them when needed to fit the narrative. And then, I took parts of it and made this poem. I’m offering it to give people a different perspective on the great state, the elusive and always transforming, place called Florida.
Visions of Atlantis.
The trading ships of the world come into harbor,
bringing their gift, their legacy.
Sailing, circling, orbiting, we ride the tides,
before we merge with the fold and mantle of sea and sky,
will we circle around to the other side,
will we come back alive?
The resort town lies weblike on Florida’s Gulf Coast,
banyan roots in backland glades,
points of anchorage, where gravity takes hold,
rolls the city up each night like a window-shade.
Each morning beneath a peg-leg, pirate's sun,
the land unfurls, surfaces beneath the surface of the sky.
Mirages and miracles: buildings, beaches, marinas,
alligator farms, the circus.
White pelicans mirror the clouds,
moonflowers glow, passion vine
and coral bells flourish, herons nest,
and a mockingbird sings of paradise.
Ghost towns in morning glory and dust,
carnivals and suburban malls in the marshes.
On the southern Gulf Coast, burial grounds
of forgotten civilizations.
Echoes of Atlantis.
Lost worlds, new worlds spiral, drop,
rise and soar in a divine glare.
Gulf Coast’s angels’ wings and rare Juno shells,
a sea of dreams, with all things sailing
we navigate by the sun and moon,
flowing into ports of call,
sailing with grief and ecstasy,
the circuitous circus.
The trading ships of the world come into harbor,
bringing their gift, their legacy—
the heavy vessels of the past empty their holds
and are refilled, flowing to the future with a purpose—
we carry precious cargo: hope, love.
Swinging across the globe, in tumult and calm,
we circle with the joy of fulfillment in time,
creating designs so potent
they shape eternity.
Copyright 1974-revised 2022 by Mary Clark
The song, “A Salty Piece of Land,” by Jimmy Buffet, who pioneered Caribbean Rock’n’Roll in Key West, Florida, communicates the allure of a place, the sense of freedom, on the boundless sea.
Mary Clark’s fiction and poetry, all set in Florida:
Once war begins, you will need to decide where to draw the line—carnage, after all, has its courtesies: I will kill soldiers, but not civilians…and I will bomb barracks, but not hospitals or schools. In the smoke, though, once it’s all flash and blur, in fear, thrill, rage things get confused, something clicks, and soon your fury spills over. What was a city becomes atrocity. You shot civilians, then you are gunning for civilization. You fired at the heart, but now it’s the back of the head, it’s that boy on a bike, it’s this grandmother offending by having a face and hands, so you leave her in a heap. Retreating through rust and wreckage, you abandon the soul that leaked from your body, a sheen of slime, a stain.
This poem by John A. Huddart exemplifies the callousness of war, when countries recruit others or appeal to them to help in a war effort, but when the need is gone?
Empire Windrush. Grey ghost of war. Twin-funnelled troopship bringing back the Forces from their newsreels, outposts, and jungle camps. From last posts, and lowering flags.
She’s slow and diesel driven – and launched as Monte Rosa in a German yard. A cruiser for vacations, and the middle classes. And then the Kreigsmarine. Berthship to the Tirpitz, Auschwitz ferry for Norwegian Jews – endures air attacks and mines. Survives.
Under British hands, she pays the price of peace. White paint shrouds sides that buckled under war. Blighty-bound, half empty, calls at Kingston and offers passage to a thousand citizens, newly minted by a government desperate for willing hands.
Curious to see the land so many fought to save, they find the forty quid and come aboard. Thus filled with hope she sails for England, and a place in history the Equal of Trafalgar, Agincourt or Waterloo.
New waters for the future meet her prow. At Tilbury, grey frowning skies rain blessings and surprise. It’s June, but cool enough to stand and shiver on the docks, and wait to fill the shortages they’re here to satisfy.
The Windrush sails away. Empire sunsets churned froth and pother at her stern. At last, she burns and sinks, her contribution made.
A generation makes its home, ignoring cards in doors and shops that advertise “No coloureds”. The slums and cities make them room, and heritage adds on another page.
Once enslaved, transported chained, plantation- bound, then freed to poverty’s thin dreams, they London’s voices richly spice with sun, and suffering. Deepened and engaged, English suddenly awake finds new rhythms in its feet.
It takes a dozen years or more for startled whites to close the door on opportunity. Betrayal shakes a hostile hand, minds fill with wasting tribal fear. The voice of England forgets the rights of man, the promises of war.
Each party over, every politician clamours For the closing of the doors, and seeks a way to send the yearning back to their hovels or the sea.
Windrush rises from the deeps and sails again, evoked by ministers who bend the rules, and marks the careless crimes of those whose biros sign the orders to deport. Black heroes flew and fought to hold the spread of camps, and looked for better orders – now fall to age, feel clerks’ indifference with quotas to fulfill.
The River Windrush flows and flows, and adds more depths to English as it goes.
And this poem by David Selzer about one of the universal symbols of the cost of war, and a human being whose life was taken too soon, as so many have been, and still are today.
4th August 1944
The canal dapples the office ceiling.
Upstairs, the fugitives are still as dust.
A siren unpeoples the city.
Into the waiting sky, with the raucous gulls
and the chestnut, her words like breathing…Her life
has turned, beyond all her desires, so
brutally to art…They packed and waited:
beyond, a locked compartment to themselves
and telephone wires curvetting by –
then countrysides of shuddering, noisome wagons.
She died alone. Her father made her grief,
her love public as Europe: spoke her words
into the empty sky.
Here are several poems of hope and resilience as well.
In doing research for my next post, I came upon this incredible poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The Cry of the Children
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;"[[Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.]]—Medea.
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Do you question the young children in the sorrow,
Why their tears are falling so ?
The old man may weep for his to-morrow
Which is lost in Long Ago —
The old tree is leafless in the forest —
The old year is ending in the frost —
The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest —
The old hope is hardest to be lost :
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
Do you ask them why they stand
Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,
In our happy Fatherland ?
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their looks are sad to see,
For the man's grief abhorrent, draws and presses
Down the cheeks of infancy —
"Your old earth," they say, "is very dreary;"
"Our young feet," they say, "are very weak !"
Few paces have we taken, yet are weary —
Our grave-rest is very far to seek !
Ask the old why they weep, and not the children,
For the outside earth is cold —
And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering,
And the graves are for the old !"
"True," say the children, "it may happen
That we die before our time !
Little Alice died last year her grave is shapen
Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her —
Was no room for any work in the close clay :
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
Crying, 'Get up, little Alice ! it is day.'
If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries ;
Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,
For the smile has time for growing in her eyes ,—
And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
The shroud, by the kirk-chime !
It is good when it happens," say the children,
"That we die before our time !"
Alas, the wretched children ! they are seeking
Death in life, as best to have !
They are binding up their hearts away from breaking,
With a cerement from the grave.
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city —
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do —
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through !
But they answer, " Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine ?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping —
We fall upon our faces, trying to go ;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground —
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
"For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, —
Their wind comes in our faces, —
Till our hearts turn, — our heads, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling —
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, —
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling —
All are turning, all the day, and we with all ! —
And all day, the iron wheels are droning ;
And sometimes we could pray,
'O ye wheels,' (breaking out in a mad moaning)
'Stop ! be silent for to-day ! '
"Ay ! be silent ! Let them hear each other breathing
For a moment, mouth to mouth —
Let them touch each other's hands, in a fresh wreathing
Of their tender human youth !
Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals —
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels ! —
Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
As if Fate in each were stark ;
And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.
Now tell the poor young children, O my brothers,
To look up to Him and pray —
So the blessed One, who blesseth all the others,
Will bless them another day.
They answer, " Who is God that He should hear us,
While the rushing of the iron wheels is stirred ?
When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us
Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word !
And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)
Strangers speaking at the door :
Is it likely God, with angels singing round Him,
Hears our weeping any more ?
"Two words, indeed, of praying we remember ;
And at midnight's hour of harm, —
'Our Father,' looking upward in the chamber,
We say softly for a charm.
We know no other words, except 'Our Father,'
And we think that, in some pause of angels' song,
God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,
And hold both within His right hand which is strong.
'Our Father !' If He heard us, He would surely
(For they call Him good and mild)
Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,
'Come and rest with me, my child.'
"But, no !" say the children, weeping faster,
" He is speechless as a stone ;
And they tell us, of His image is the master
Who commands us to work on.
"Go to ! " say the children,—"up in Heaven,
Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds are all we find !
Do not mock us ; grief has made us unbelieving —
We look up for God, but tears have made us blind."
Do ye hear the children weeping and disproving,
O my brothers, what ye preach ?
For God's possible is taught by His world's loving —
And the children doubt of each.
And well may the children weep before you ;
They are weary ere they run ;
They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory
Which is brighter than the sun :
They know the grief of man, without its wisdom ;
They sink in the despair, without its calm —
Are slaves, without the liberty in Christdom, —
Are martyrs, by the pang without the palm, —
Are worn, as if with age, yet unretrievingly
No dear remembrance keep,—
Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly :
Let them weep ! let them weep !
They look up, with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see,
For they think you see their angels in their places,
With eyes meant for Deity ;—
"How long," they say, "how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child's heart, —
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart ?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,
And your purple shews your path ;
But the child's sob curseth deeper in the silence
Than the strong man in his wrath !"
Lyn Lifshin (1942-2019) was a prolific American poet who wrote of quiet moments, thoughts, and dreams. She was born in New England and kept the tradition of austerity threaded with longing – with passion often unspoken – of that region. Her poetry, however, differed from Frost and Dickinson in its modern apprehension and cheerful sensuality.
Black Sparrow Press, one of her publishers, wrote: Lyn was the author of more than 125 books and edited four anthologies of women writers. Throughout her life, she remained dedicated to the small presses which first published her.
The first of these poems I read inWaterways, a literary magazine that’s been published for more than 35 years now. The poem was published in other “lit mags” as well.
She Said She Couldn’t See to Walk Easily
for Malala Yousafzai
In her long gray
drab berka. Some
times it was hot.
It was as if she
wanted to bring
color, not the
source of the storm.
Wanted to walk
into life like it
was her house. She
wanted to wear
it was her favorite
color. There are
songs she wants
to sing. She wants
to feel as if each
day could unravel
She wants the school
to receive her in
quiet calmness the
way the lake
opens to receive
a flock of swans
Milky summer nights, the men stay waiting, First National Corner where the traffic light used to be, wait
as they have all June evenings of their lives. Lilac moss and lily of the valley sprout in the cooling air as
Miss Damon, never late for thirty years, hurries to unlock the library, still hoping for a sudden man to spring tall from the
locked dark of mysterious card catalogues to come brightening her long dusty shelves. And halfway to dark
boys with vacation bicycles whistle flat stones over the bridge, longing for secret places where rocks are blossoming girls with damp thighs.
Then nine o’clock falls thick on lonely books and all the unclaimed fingers and as men move home through bluemetal light, the Congregational Church bells
ringing as always four minutes late, the first hayload of summer rumbles through town and all the people shut their eyes dreaming a wish
To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a bouquet of Irish poetry. Possibly the first known poem was by Amergin, a druid and bard accompanying the Milesians (sons of Mil) who were Gaels from south-eastern Europe before Christ, or so the story goes. They sailed from Spain and encountered the people of the goddess Danu. A challenge was set: if the Milesians stayed away for three days, the De Dananns would decide whether to retire, submit, or fight. Amergin decided the island was not the Milesians by right, and they should withdraw “over nine green waves” and if they could land again, the island would be theirs by right of conquest. At sea, the Milesian ships were hit by strong winds created by “the Druids and poets of Erinn. Their incantations raised so violent a storm that the vessels were driven westward and separated.”
Amergin countered with his own incantation, a poem with a strange rhyme sequence. “It is composed in “Conaclon,” the end word of one line rimes to the first word of the line following, and indeed the rime is sometimes secured by repeating the word.” Alliteration is also used.
Ailim iath n ereann,
Ermac muir motach,
Motach sliab sreatach
Sreatach coill ciotach. FAIN we ask Erinn,
Faring o'er ocean's
Motions to mountains,
Fountains and bowers
The incantation worked and the Milesians settled in Ireland. Amergin composed two “Songs of Triumph” in which he invoked the power and spirit of the natural world and his prowess.
"I, the poet, prophet, pray'rful,
Weapons wield for warriors' slaying:
Tell of triumph, laud forthcoming
Future fame in soaring story!
Medieval Irish poetry survives in marginalia on manuscripts as they were worked on by monks and scribes. One of the most famous is “Pangur Bán,” a 9th Century poem about a monk and his cat. Seamus Heaney’s translation is one I like best. It begins with:
Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
‘Over me green branches hang
A blackbird leads the loud song
Above my pen-lined booklet
I hear a fluting bird-throng
The cuckoo pipes a clear call
Its dun cloak hid in deep dell:
Praise to God for his goodness
That in woodland I write well’
(translated by Maire Mac Neill)
Modern Irish poets include Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, and Eavan Boland. Boland’s “Mother Ireland” is on the Poetry Foundation website. And finally, “Sailing to Byzantium,” a poem about growing old by William Butler Yeats. The poet along with William and Elizabeth Sharp (author of Lyra Celtica) endeavored to keep alive the legacy of Irish poetry.
In honor of the impressive showing of Norway, Sweden, and Germany in the Winter Games, I’m choosing Old Norse poems for this post. The storytelling style and the legends in these medieval poems influenced many writers, J. R. R. Tolkien among them. I think Shakespeare was aware of these poems and their legends as well.
One of the interesting differences between Anglo-Saxon and Old French poetry of the time was that skaldic poems were a common form of expression. They could be quite complex and obscure. Interpreting the poems may have been a kind of game, extended forms of today’s Wordle. “Skaldic … poetry seems to have been an almost universal activity among the Vikings, both as composers and audiences.” (1)
Though the Vikings in their pillaging and raiding phase were brutal, they also became adept at commerce and created lasting poetry and music. To enhance the mood, with a draught of mead if possible, here’s a Viking Song.
I’m including the poem about the shieldmaiden Hervör who asked her dead father to give her his magic sword. Of course, the sword was cursed.
According to Wikipedia, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek) is a legendary saga from the 13th century combining matter from several older sagas in Germanic heroic legend. It tells of wars between the Goths and the Huns during the 4th century.
Hervararkviða, (published in English translation as The Waking of Angantýr, or The Incantation of Hervor) is an Old Norse poem from the Hervarar saga, which is sometimes included in editions of the Poetic Edda.
Scholars at the University of Texas at Austin write (2):
The following selection is a poetical excerpt from Hervarar saga okHeiðreks konungs. The diction of the poem is archaic, and some scholars have thought it to be the remnant of an earlier poetic form of the entire narrative, of which the saga we have is the distilled version.
The poem begins when Hervör arrives on the island Samsey to claim the sword Tyrfing from her dead father Angantýr. … Dwarfs created the sword Tyrfing for Svafrlami, but one laid a curse upon it: that it should bring death to the one who wielded it, that no wound it caused should ever heal, and that it should bring about three shameful deeds. These are of course played out to the letter in the ensuing story.
Angantýr’s posthumous daughter, when she came of age to learn her father’s identity and the cause of his death, set herself on the track toward vengeance. … This is where the poem picks up the story; from the end of the poem it is clear what Hervör’s next task will be, as she puts revenge before her own well-being in true heroic tradition.
In Munarvag at sunset the young maid met a man at his flock.
The herdsman said: ‘Who has come alone to the island? Go quickly to your lodging!’
Hervör said: ‘I cannot go to my lodging, since I know none of the island inhabitants; before you go from here, tell where are Horvath’s burial mounds?’
The herdsman said: ‘Don’t ask about that, you are not wise, friend of vikings, you’re in dire straits; let us go as quickly as our feet will take us — everything out here is harmful to men.’
Hervör said: ‘We offer you treasure as payment for the information; it is not easy to dissuade the friend of warriors; no one has ornaments handsome enough to me, rings so fair, that I not go.’
The herdsman said: ‘Foolish he seems to me, who goes there, a man totally alone, through dark night; fire is in flight, the mounds lay open, earth and bog are burning — let us go quickly!’
Hervör said: ‘Let us take care not to be frightened by such snorting, though fires burn throughout the entire island! Let’s not allow dead warriors to quickly frighten us; we shall make conversation.’
At that moment the herdsman was headed to the woods at the words of this maiden; but Hervor’s heart, well-prepared for such straits, swelled in her breast.
She then saw the grave fires and ghosts come out, and she went to the mounds and was not frightened. She passed through the fires and smoke, until she came to the mound of the berserkers. Then she said:
‘Wake, Angantýr! Hervör wakes you, sole daughter of you and Tofa. Give out from the grave your sharp sword, which dwarfs hammered out for Svafrlami.
Hervarth, Hjorvarth, Hrani, Angantýr! I wake you all below the tree’s roots, with helmet and byrnie, with sharp sword, with shield and harness, with reddened spear.
You, sons of Arngrim, violent kin, have changed greatly for the heaping up of earth, while none of the sons of Eyfura will speak with me in Munarvag.
So be it for you all within your ribs, as if you waste away in an ant hill, unless you give the sword which Dvalin hammered; it is not fitting for ghosts to hide the precious weapon.’
Then Angantýr answered: ‘Hervör, my daughter, why do you call out so, filled with curses? It works to your disadvantage. You have become mad and senseless; delirious, you wake dead men!
A father did not bury me, nor other kin. They held Tyrfing, the two who lived, though at last only one became the owner.’
She said: ‘Tell it true: so the God should leave you whole in the mound, if you do not have Tyrfing with you! You are reluctant to give the inheritance to your only child.’
Then it was as if a single flame was to be seen all around the graves, which stood open. Then Angantýr said:
‘The door to hell is open, graves lie open, all the island’s surface is seen to be on fire; it is fearsome to behold all about. Hasten, maiden, if you can, to your ships!’
She said: ‘You could not light fires in the night, so that I am frightened by your flames; the maiden’s thought-enclosure does not tremble, though she see a ghost stand at the door.’
Then Angantýr said: ‘I tell you, Hervör, listen for the moment, prince’s daughter, to what will be; This Tyrfing will, if you can believe, maiden, destroy your entire family.
You will have a son who will later carry Tyrfing and trust his might; People will call him Heithrek, he will be born most magnificent under the sun’s pavilion.’
She said: ‘I lay a spell on dead men, so that you shall all lie dead with the ghosts, rotten in your grave; Give, Angantýr, out from the grave the dwarfs’ work! It is not fitting for you to hide it.’
He said: ‘I declare you, young maiden, unlike to men, as you go from the mounds in the night with an inlaid spear and the Goths’ metal, with helmet and byrnie before the doors of the hall.’
She said: ‘I seemed man enough til the point when I decided to seek your halls; give up from your grave that which cuts mail, that danger to shields, Hjalmar’s bane!’
Angantýr said: ‘Hjalmar’s bane lies beneath my shoulders, it is wrapped all about by fire; nowhere on earth do I know a maiden such as would dare take this sword in hand.’
She said: ‘I might care for and take in hand the sharp sword, if I could have it; I do not fear burning fire — at once the flame sinks as I look upon it.’
He said: ‘You are foolish, Hervör, but possessed of courage, as you rush wide-eyed into the fire; instead I will give the sword from out of the grave, young maid, I cannot refuse.’
She said: ‘Well you did, viking kin, as you gave me the sword from the grave; I seem now, prince, to be better off, than if I should possess all of Norway.’
He said: ‘You do not understand — you are hapless in your causes, deceitful woman — what the celebration will be for; This Tyrfing will, if you can believe, maiden, destroy your entire family.’
‘I will go to my ocean-steeds; now the prince’s maid is in good spirits; little does that frighten me, princes’ kin, how my sons contend hereafter.’
He said: ‘You shall have and enjoy it for a long time, keep Hjalmar’s bane in the sheath, do not touch the edges, poison is upon both; it dispenses man’s fate worse by disease.
Fare well, daughter! Readily would I give you the life of twelve men, if you could believe, the strength and endurance, everything good, which Arngrim’s sons left after them.’
She said: ‘Be you all — the journey calls me — safe in the grave! I must quickly hence. Now most of all I seemed between worlds, as fires burned around me.’
(In the last sentence, I note that she is now speaking in the first person, taking control of her story.)