The Poor, Poor Country – John Shaw Neilson

The Poor, Poor Country

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day – how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

I waded out to the swan’s nest – at night I heard them sing,
I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king;
I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky,
And in that poor country no pauper was I.

The mountain-ducks down in the dark made many a hollow sound,
I saw in sleep the Bunyip creep from the waters underground.
I found the plovers’ island home, and they fought right valiantly,
Poor was the country, but it made no pauper of me.

My riches all went into dreams that never yet came home,
They touched upon the wild cherries and the slabs of honeycomb,
They were not of the desolate brood that men can sell or buy,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

* * * * *

The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

John Shaw Neilson (1872 – 1942)

Pauper = impoverished person
Bunyip = legendary Australian monster

JSN did not have a formal education. He attended his local school for less than two years and as a small child worked as a farm-labourer for his father. Much of his life was spent labouring.

His Scottish family migrated to Australia and they took up a selection to clear and farm in the poor scrub covered Mallee of Victoria. It was a continual struggle trying to develop this harsh environment. It was aptly named as ‘poor country’.

JSN must have heard his father curse his predicament. The land was only seen in economic terms to escape poverty. But JSN saw the land as a boy discovering Nature without the dictate of financial gain. He was observant to all that this ‘poor country’ had to offer and unlike the improvised land he recognised the great wealth of his surroundings. And perhaps given the task to labour the land without siblings or children to play with he welcomed the birdlife as his friends. He saw the land from a different perspective and although without education gave his contrast voice to it in this poem.

The story of his life as a labourer and how he became recognised  as a poet is set out in this Australian Dictionary of Biography link

Perhaps his most well-known poem is ‘The Orange Tree’

I remember, I remember – Philip Larkin – Analysis

I Remember, I Remember

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Philip Larkin

What a different poem from the poem with the same title as that by Thomas Hood. I can’t help thinking that Larkin chose the title with Hood’s poem in mind to give an honest statement of his unhappy childhood experience. Coming up England by a different line – a very clever way of saying his lines are markedly different from the ideal country exprience exressed in Hood’s nostalgic escapist lines.

Men with number plates an intersting way of saying they owned a car – perhaps it was their pride and joy in running down the platform to make contact – or perhaps congestion was a problem in the parking area.

Well his childhood was a disappointment – where my childhood was unspent – time is equated to money and money value. And in replying to a fellow traveller makes synical comment – wasn’t spoken to by an old hat – (by adults who should have given explanation), I never ran to when I got depressed – (no emotional connection with family). Larkin concentrates on the things that didn’t happen that he thought would be common in other families.

Their Comic Ford, their farm – the other children created their own imitation reality – which to Larkin was comic and I think he was being synical by saying he could be ‘really himself”. And laments no sexual contact with the girls who were all chest, the boys all biceps. Perhap he had a different emphasis – his doggerel was not set up – like that of other children who had recognition nor read By a distinguished cousin of the mayor and given feedback that they were gifted.

And that great last line – ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ The place itself, Coventry, is not at fault.

Apart from the clever word play slant the pentameter and rhyming construct shows that Larkin put a lot of work into this expression of his childhood – ensuring that his experience will be remembered by the many who treasure Larkin as a top poet.

Fern Hill – Dylan Thomas – Analysis

‘Fern Hill’ is one of Dylan Thomas’s most read poems. Dylan Thomas happens to be a favourite poet of The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles that is, and how appropriate). Prince Charles visited the poet’s birthplace in Swansea in September 2013. The following is a YouTube video of his reading of ‘Fern Hill’ …

Here are the words of the poem, my commentary appears after each stanza  …

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

(lilting house – a touch of music and song in the house, dingle = a small wooded valley or dell … this reflects to the green apple days of his youth – nice that when young ‘time let him climb golden in the heydays of his eyes’ – wonderful expression of how time lets the young stretch to the sky … and the young are always honoured by those older as he rode on the wagons and he himself lord of his rural environment invoked by easy movement as he went his merry way – another great line ‘down the rivers of the windfall light’- again linking with apples and movement)

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

(Invokes a very joyous outside childhood … I too can remember time spent as a child playing with friends on a farm … wonderful environment so many things to explore … so I can identify strongly with this stanza … here we have time again … time gives such a lot to the young – very merciful … the Sabbath rang slowly … the holy day distant, and defined in terms of the outside and nature – his holy place … the sound of water on pebbles his Sabbath bell)

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

(the haystacks as high as a house – the sound of wind in the chimney and the fireplace empty for this is summer his mind is fired by rich green grass … and as he falls asleep the farm is still much within his soul … the sound of owls fall away – what a great line ‘as I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away’ … the movement of the night farm sleeps within him as he rides to sleep)

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

(the farm is personified in white dew … a religious reference to the first garden … and it was as though everything was reborn for him as the simple light defined the environment anew … the fields in praise for the gift of light and sun) 

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

(I can imagine the trophies of pheasants and foxes and he equally honoured … and the endless days of happy sun-rich care free wanderings – that is before time starts to diminish and ‘follow him out of grace’)

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

(in the days of childhood there were no cares on how time would swallow and leave forever the days of innocent joy – he was ‘young and easy in the mercy of his means’ – we are all chained if you like, like the sea is chained by land – but it’s great to sing in our chains whether in childhood or a little older – nice that in childhood the chains are well hidden)