Three poems from Sequences
There is a refinement about Butterworth’s music that words can describe but cannot convey A grief for the passing of England the more poignant for the restraining of tears, None of the pomp of empire you find in Elgar or the choral glory of Parry, but a music Almost still but still moving in its stillness, the long lamenting sighing of God As the angel drove us from Eden; ‘Here at least take these photographs with you’:
The idly lounging cricket teams in their striped blazers and caps, the long white crinolines, The flowery hats, the smooth croquet lawns, the silver serviced teas, even the urchins Wear Eton collars and Norfolk jackets and short trousers down to their knees; of course Larkin’s poem about the falling of the dark is wonderful, the larking recruits lining To join up as though they were queueing outside the Oval or Villa Park (how could you ever forget that image?); but literature always look back with irony, a knowing Inlaid knowledge, we read Larkin’s poem now with a kind of cognitive pain, ‘Never such innocence again’, we read it sepia toned with horror, the pictures we can now Never get out of our heads like the mad woman in the attic: Auschwitz, the Somme, Hiroshima; of course Butterworth knew about the passing of England for he knew (as artists do) what was coming. But only music escapes time – to get inside those old photographs Now so faded and yellow, to stand once more in that moment of sweet melancholy You need Butterworth’s music: the patient plough horses, the poppies in the cornfields, The verges full of wild flowers, the long uncut grasses, the hidden lanes under high hedges, The not-yet knowing, the banks of green willow.
A carved stone inlaid into a wall, proud, unabashed, flaunting itself triumphantly, Bold as brass ‘Laid by Counsellor Mrs J. Arthur Clegg on July 2 nd 1923’, how that Amorous episode must have surpassed all, to be memorialized upon a wall.
She arrives with her ID, briefcase, clipboard and sanitary regulations in a file Rings the bell and greets the nervous wary householder with freezing smile ‘Mr J. Arthur Clegg? I’m from the Council and I’ve come to inspect the drains We are obliged by legal statute to carry out inspections if anyone complains’;
She inspects the property thoroughly: sinks, bathroom, kitchen, pantry, lavatory And then the drains, makes notes, and says to him with face neutrally impassive “Mr Clegg all is not well, in my professional opinion these drains definitely smell;
These are my recommendations, to comply you have thirty days to see to this Otherwise, take note, a court order will be issued with appropriate penalties’; She turns to go – but as she does Cupid arrives with an arrow ready in his bow;
He takes careful aim and fires – Whoooooooo–ooooo-oooo-ooo-oo-oosh ! Ping! His fiery javelin flashes from heart to heart and in an instant changes everything ‘He was so nice, so vulnerable’ she thinks, despite the drawback of his awful sinks, But she can hardly tell him, that surely without doubt would be most improper Her reason to be here is to inspect his drains in her official role as councillor But on the other hand… Oh help! – say nothing now she might lose him for ever
Blushing, confused, uncertain she turns back – ‘I don’t know how to put this – ‘ ‘Oh yes? Is there something else?’ Oh nothing’, she cannot see it through How can she reveal to a ratepayer with smelly drains that she is human too?
But he, as if he were the Virgin Mary about to lose mankind’s eternal happiness As the archangel says ‘My apologies, I think my sat nav’s got the wrong address’ Blurts out ‘I love you!’ Dazed, amazed she hears herself say ‘Yes I think I do too’
‘I never thought –‘ How can this have happened? ‘To us both? Just like that?’ ‘This is just amazing’ ‘How astonishing!’ ‘You really mean?’ ‘How can this be -? But their bright eyes confirm their love and they kiss each other most tenderly
Their hearts overflow with a joy so great it gushes out like a river in spate Bubbling over like a drain (no pun intended here) in a storm of heavy rain Oh let’s make love! mounting swiftly up the stair to the bedroom they repair,
She shuts the door so trembling with excitement she can hardly turn the key Kicks off shoes, peels off her dress, stockings, all thumbs undoes her corsetry, Suspenders, chemise, vest, knickers (did councillors wear bloomers in 1923?) And stands before him the full monty – here I am! – in all her naked glory
He is dumbfounded, eyes mist over, knees turn to water, he adores her ‘How beautiful you are! Councillor Mrs J. Arthur Clegg as I hope you’ll be, How blind I was, but now I see, I see! I love and worship you! Marry me!
There is a pause, it lasts an eternity while all the planets stand still Oh yes, yes I will! Oh yes Oh yes I will! I will! I will! I will!
Sexual intercourse did not begin of course, until 1963 But already 40 years before sex was knocking at the door Between the invention of 78’s and the very first LP.
How you haunt me still, dear Ben, who were once amongst the handsomest And most beautiful of men both cursed and favoured by Apollo, you died before Your time, wreathed in distress and sorrows, bald, riddled with cancer and terrified By demonic images (the drugs I must suppose) with the bleeding souls of your Two wives howling with a grief no outsider should have ever witnessed; how I now Regret that I was amongst those who, hungry for a transcendence that is, alas, always Incomplete, descended on your beauty like flies laying eggs on meat: one more item To add to the world’s vast gallery of misery; as now at Thiepval cemetery we view With stunned and emptied minds the list of those whose bodies were never found, Blown to bits or drowned in mud in no-man’s land (in Mametz Wood Robert Graves saw a Huge Bosch from Frankfurt or Hanover sitting as if in his armchair with nose and mouth Pouring black blood, and two combatants who, as if in a marriage of dreadful lovers, Had bayoneted each other, ach! the mind turns back) and clothe them with what scraps Of dignity we can; bugles blow the last post with a pure and plangent melancholy Only made more complex by the polyphonic undertone of at least it wasn’t me; What was it all for, this list of disembodied souls at Thiepval cemetery stretching as if in a Seemingly unending row of empty hangers wanting clothes: what caused a war so terrible? To defend our empire? To defeat evil? Or a hideous darkness swimming up into the mind Gulping hungrily the beauty of these brave young men simply because they were beautiful? In the face of a horror so huge you can feel nothing, pity dries up, reason disintegrates, All hope disappears, you turn back in gratitude to the anaesthesia of daily life – memo: Don’t forget the cat food and birthday card for wife; and so I add Benedict to my own small Garden of sorrow and remorse, that I weed and tend and each day water with my tears, So personal a plot I can almost cope with it, and listen in fragile hope to Schubert’s Am tage aller seelen, a work of art so solemn and immortal it would almost console and Bless these torn holes in the heart; the yearning in the long spun-out legato line; the down Tiptoeing triplets so dainty they would not wake the dead; the gap that opens in the heart In the descent to the minor key returning to the dominant In a consoling blessedness of Music beyond what words can say; and if such miracles of art can look horror in the face, I am encouraged to almost hope that the myth of God taking on our humanity and even in His agony pleading Father forgive them they know not what they do, is a myth so beautiful It might be true, and these lost corpses remembered in Thiepval cemetery, and dear Ben, Might find their bodies beautiful in the forgiveness and the blessedness of heaven, Rest in peace dear souls, Ruh’n in Frieden alle Seelen and Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.