ET IN ARCADIA EGO


I have not heard a cuckoo here since childhood

when fields were wilder and trees less sparse.

I heard one this year in Gascony,

on the Plateau de Lannemazan,

on a wooded ridge with the late March winds

from the Pyrenees rasping the corn stubs

in the field below and rushing

through the budding trees bright with lichen

and ruffling the flowers on the blackthorn

and the violets among the leaf mould.

 

Between a gap in the trees the ridge way

was bare limestone. There were walnut shells

and empty 12 bore shot gun cartridges.

Before me, down the slope, was the village

that was a town until the Black Death –

fortified to subdue Basque and Occitan.

The clock on the Mairie struck a muffled hour

but the fell bird sang clearly over the wind.

 

As I descended the lane I passed a field

where an English ex-pat’s donkey brayed at me,

a Belgian’s house with dogs that yelped and howled

and a hunter walking up towards the ridge,

his gun broken on his arm. I heard dogs

and donkey distantly as he passed them –

and knew the wild woods would soon be silenced.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by John Williams - April 29th, 2016 at 23:49

    Sent from the Library of the University of Ludong, Yantai, Shandong Province, China

    The poem certainly evokes the sense of loss and presence of death: the absent birds, wildness on the retreat, the gun cartridges that symbolise man’s killing, (the only creature that kills at a distance). Interesting ending, the dogs and donkey alerted to the presence of the hunter, the killer, as he approaches.

    The poem evokes peaceful but vulnerable scenes: “corn stubs…budding tees…violets..walnut shells…”. We hear how the Black Death destroyed the town already fortified to withstand attack.

    On re-reading, I see how often the poem refers to the poet himself with “I…” and “me…” and realise the Romantic clichés: ” I have not heard…since childhood”, “the late March winds”, “the budding trees bright with lichen”. “As I descended the lane ” and the Wordsworthian use of the French landscape. These strain for effect, full of nostalgia. It seems ironic how the reader, like the landscape, is made vulnerable. This time by the poet to gain sympathy against encroaching death. It seems unfair to manipulate sentimentality that way, lamenting the loss of the natural order. Perhaps the most intriguing word in the poem comes in the final line, “knew”.

    I wonder why there is no reference to the other bit of Wordsworth, the visionary of the “Lyrical Ballads”. It’s just what I need as I look over the sea toward NK’s missile test crash site number 3.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. #2 by David Selzer - May 3rd, 2016 at 17:20

    I’m glad the piece moved you, John, so far from home and with that fantasy empire so close – and sorry it lacks the vision these times need.
    Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time of writing, your mention of Wordsworth makes me realise that I have made an Edward Thomas use of the French landscape; Thomas with his dark edged ‘Romantic clichés’; Thomas of ‘The Owl’, of course, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53777 and also, for instance, of ‘As The Team’s Head Brass’: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/57207. The poem now seems to me almost an imitation of Thomas – which pleases me. Thank you for helping me realise that.

    A small point but the erstwhile town was built to ‘subdue’ the locals not merely withstand them. It is one of a string of such fortified towns the Plantagenets (aka English) built in Gascony – as in Wales.

    Good criticism is both challenging and enlightening. ‘The unexamined poem is not worth writing,’ as Socrates might have said if Plato had let him!

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