Let the Poetry Begin!
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for more poems!
When I was about twelve years old, my class had to learn poems by heart. These poems have stayed with me and remain vivid. One was called ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ and was written by Lord Byron, about the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, in which the Assyrians not only lose their battle, but also one hundred and eighty-five thousand men. The first two verses of the poem describe the massed forces of the invaders and their pitiful state after the fight.
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.”
There was a field of sunflowers growing behind our house this Summer, which reminded me of the tale of Sennacherib. Over a period of months, I watched the thousands of plants grow and flourish and the flowers become more and more prominent, until they opened. By Summer there were thousands of splendid sunflowers. Come Autumn they ‘lay withered and strown’, awaiting the harvester.
I love sunflowers. I think that they are magnificent flowers. But it didn’t take too much imagination to compare their rise and fall to that of countless populist armies over the centuries.
Lofty sunflowers, Summer’s burnished zealots,
Crouch, defeated, chastened in the field.
Once, extrovert, in serried rank, they gleamed,
In uniforms of green, resplendent gold.
Their grace brought knowing smiles
To groups of ramblers, panting, pink,
Their glasses moist, with haversack and stick,
Who faced the heat in matching rain-resisting coats,
In shorts and ankle boots, and floppy hats.
Mocked the mustard army, on parade,
Craned, to catch their all-consuming star.
It didn’t take a poet’s inward eye
To see the gallant troops of Waterloo,
Infatuated Volk in misty black and white,
Who stretch, a nation deep, in blind salute,
‘Hail Sun! Hail Sun! Hail Sun!’
But that was then.
Today they lounge, collapsed, in disarray,
Listless soldiers, careless on parade.
Their tarnished bascinets, now set awry,
Reveal the home-spun faces of defeat,
Examining their boots or placid sky,
They cannot see the stranger passing by.
The honour, glory and the power have gone.
Old greenwood forests have moods, which speak to our senses. We all know how wonderful it is to see the fresh buds of spring on the trees, the songs of birds as they sit busily on branches high above us, and the flurry as they fly ahead at our approach. In spring all is renewed. Animals procreate, birds nest, new growth peeps shyly from the forest floor. Summer and autumn too, have their seasonal joys. It is not difficult to feel optimistic when the sun shines lazily through the foliage or we walk ankle-deep in dried leaves, at once entranced and bewildered by the season’s new patterns.
But, winter, and woodland can test the boldest of spirits. They remind us of our own mortality, of the relentless passage of time, of our own ageing and the coming of old age to those we love. On the other hand, most of us can see that winter doesn’t have to be the end of things. In many ways, it is a new beginning, and we only need be a little patient to see the signs of new life coming stealthily all around us.
The woodland’s breath is rank.
Dead trees like rotting teeth,
Gape, sweet and musty with decay,
As we approach.
The fallen trunks like cold Crusaders,
Long dead, lie in posey prayer,
Sightless, gazing at the vaulted,
High cathedral sky.
Beneath our feet, the leaf mould,
Damply, springs and sighs.
The velvet greens of mosses,
Cushion-plump and odious,
Cloak the stumps and boles
Of oaks and birch and beech.
Fat toadstools, sulphurous, pink, and brown,
Infest the forest floor.
“All things must pass”, it seems to say.
“All things must fade and die away.”
But my feet dance, on beech-nut mast,
For there I see,
Beside the crumbling, ivy-covered tree,
A fresh-sprung snowdrop nod his head to thee.
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.