This week Stephen celebrates an unfairly overlooked poet…
Many of my favorite poems have been written by poets who I consider to be “neglected.” There are various reasons for this neglect. Perhaps it has to do with literary “reputations” and (Heaven forbid) literary “criticism.” (I am not an unremitting foe of literary criticism, but its role has been a trifle (!) inflated in recent times.) Whatever the reason for the neglect, it saddens me that wonderful poets and poems do not receive the attention they deserve. One of my goals is to share these poets and poems with you.
Andrew Young (1885-1971), who was born in Scotland, was first a Presbyterian minister and, later, an Anglican vicar. He wrote poetry throughout his long life.
A Dead Mole
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?
The clear sky – ‘the blue vault of the air’ – is a recurring preoccupation of Young’s. I have fond memories of visiting the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire. The weather was fine on the occasions that I visited — the combination of a deep green sward of grass, grey walls, and the blue sky was beautiful. I had (and have) no deep thoughts about the visits — nothing, for instance, about the remorselessness of time, the vanity of human wishes, the storied ecclesiastical history of England. What was (and is, in memory) remarkable was strolling on wide, soft floors of grass, surrounded by tall grey walls without a roof, doorways without doors, arched empty windows opening onto fields and trees. And, over and around it all, the huge sky.
The Ruined Chapel
From meadows with the sheep so shorn
They, not their lambs, seem newly born,
Through the graveyard I pass,
Where only blue plume-thistle waves
And headstones lie so deep in grass
They follow dead men to their graves,
And as I enter by no door
This chapel where the slow moss crawls
I wonder that so small a floor
Can have the sky for roof, mountains for walls.
The final two lines are lovely, of course. But “headstones lie so deep in grass/They follow dead men to their graves” is very fine as well.
Lapis lazuli — that exotic and redolent substance — makes an appearance in poems by three “major” poets: “Lapis Lazuli” by W. B. Yeats, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” by Robert Browning (“Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli”), and “This Solitude of Cataracts” by Wallace Stevens (“To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis”). But I humbly submit that Yeats, Browning, and Stevens cannot hold a candle to Andrew Young:
Four blue stones in this thrush’s nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.
To finish, here are two poems appropriate to the season:
Sometimes an autumn leaf
That falls upon the ground,
Gives the heart a wound
And wakes an ancient grief.
But I weep not that all
The leaves of autumn die,
I only weep that I
Should live to see them fall.
The Last Leaf
I saw how rows of white raindrops
From bare boughs shone,
And how the storm had stript the leaves
Save one left high on a top twig
Then that too bursting into song
Fled and was gone.
If you wish to read more of Andrew Young’s poetry, try to find a copy of his 1960 Collected Poems, illustrated with wood-engravings by Joan Hassall.