Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

ForkInTheRoadI recall from a walk in Wensleydale a year or two ago, an unexpected fork in the path that my friend Patrick and I were taking down a hill called Addlebrough. There seemed to be two ways back to our starting point. For some reason the phrase ‘the path not taken’ came into my mind, and I briefly pondered that I might never find out what would have been different if we had taken the other path to the one that we decided to take. Patrick said that the phrase was ‘the road not taken’ and it was the title of well-known poem.

The Road Not Taken is a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in the preface to his collection of poems Mountain Interval which was published in 1916 when Europe was engulfed in the Great War. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

robert frost, american poet, rural life, new england, pulitzer prize

Robert Lee Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963), the American poet, was born in San Francisco. His poems were often set in rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He was much honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, and in 1913 he became a close friend of the then writer and literary critic Edward Thomas, after Thomas had reviewed one of the older poet’s collections. They took many walks together in the fields and woods around Frost’s cottage in the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. In 1915, Frost returned to New Hampshire and he sent Thomas an advance copy of The Road Not Taken.

The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their walks. Thomas would often choose one fork in the road because he was convinced it would lead them to something, perhaps a patch of rare wild flowers or a particular bird’s nest. When the road failed to yield the hoped-for rarities, Thomas would rue his choice, convinced the other road would have doubtless led to something better.

Frost wrote to Thomas ‘no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Unfortunately Thomas took the poem more seriously (as had college audiences to whom Frost had read his poem), and more personally than Frost had intended.

So close was the friendship that had developed between them when Frost was in England, Thomas and Frost had planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision. He also suffered from chronic depression. He found it difficult to choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France, even though he despised the jingoism and the hatred of Germans that the press was stoking.

But Thomas was also haunted by the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced six months earlier in a stand-off with a gamekeeper that he and Frost had encountered on one of their walks. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. The Road Not Taken did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. ‘Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’

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flannan isles, isle of lewis, outer hebrides, scotland, atlantic ocean

The Flannan Isles are 20 miles west (to the left) of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

St Kilda is well-known as the isolated archipelago 40 miles (64 km) west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Following crop failures and illness, the remaining population of 36 people on the only inhabited island, Hirta, was evacuated in 1930. St Kilda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 reflecting both its natural and cultural significance. However there is another much less well-known group of remote islands off the Outer Hebrides, which is the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three keepers of the lighthouse on an island there vanished without trace.

The Flannan Isles (or Na h-Eileanan Flannach in Gaelic) or Seven Hunters lie 20 miles (32 km) west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not as far out to sea as St Kilda, but further north. And since the automation of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in 1971, no one has lived there, although the islands became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1983. The lighthouse, and a ruined chapel dedicated to St Flannan, is on the largest island, Eilean Mòr (Big Isle).

eilean mòr, flannan isles, lighthouse, atlantic ocean

A huge inlet on the north side of Eilean Mòr looking east towards the lighthouse. The walk to the lighthouse up the slope on the right is steep, but it is insignificant compared with these cliffs. © Chris Downer/Creative Commons Licence

The lighthouse was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 near the highest point of Eilean Mòr at a cost of £6,914. All the materials in the building of the 75 feet high lighthouse had to be hauled 150 feet up cliffs from supply boats. The lighthouse was first lit on 7 December 1899. There was no wireless communication, the only form of communication being a series of semaphore-style balls on posts which could be seen from the Hebrides on a good day.

Other than its relative isolation, it would be little different from most of the lighthouses built off the coasts of Britain were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned. In December 1900, the lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (James Ducat, Principal Keeper; Thomas Marshall, Second Assistant; and Donald Macarthur, Occasional Keeper), with a rotating fourth man (Joseph Moore), on leave on the Isle of Lewis.

On 15 December, the steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia in the United States to Leith near Edinburgh noticed as it passed the islands that the light was not working, and this was reported three days later on docking at Oban further south. The scheduled relief ship for the lighthouse, the Hesperus, which was based in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, had been due to visit on 20 December but it was delayed because of rough weather and did not reach Eilean Mòr until noon on Boxing Day, 26 December. When they arrived, ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore, the flag was not flying, and none of the usual provision boxes were ready on the landing stage for re-stocking.

When Joseph Moore was put ashore, alone, he found the gate and main door to the lighthouse compound closed, the beds unmade, the clocks stopped, and no trace of the keepers. He returned to the landing stage to tell the captain of the Hesperus, Jim Harvey, the bad news. Moore then carried out a further search with two of the crew. The lamps were trimmed and refilled, the lens and machinery had been cleaned, the washing-up had been done, and there were cold ashes in the grate. But a set of oilskins belonging to Donald McArthur was found suggesting that the keeper had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. Other than that, an overturned chair by the kitchen table was the only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse. Outside, on the rest of island, the three lighthouse keepers were nowhere to be found. They had vanished. (more…)

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david attenborough, naturalist, overpopulation

Sir David Attenborough, Naturalist (b1926)
‘The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us.’

Governments seem unable or unwilling to face up to the alarming consequences of an ever-increasing world population – projected by the United Nations to increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 million by 2050 (source) – and ever-increasing consumption. Climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels; water and food shortages; the destruction of forests, species extinction and loss of biodiversity; competition for dwindling mineral resources, as well as the inevitability of increasing human conflict.  Is this because voters in developed  (democratic) countries usually vote their governments in or out on the basis of whether they are able to deliver economic growth. Growth that has to be achieved at almost any price, and which at present relies on the exploitation of unsustainable resources?

So what chance is there that the governments of developing countries, with 5.9 billion people who like us will want cars and will want to fly to distant places, what chance is there that their governments will be able to act differently? For us as individuals, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? Are we expecting that technology will come to the rescue, that something will turn up?

This brings to mind the oft-quoted lines:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

winston churchill, gathering storm, second world war, house of commons, nazi

The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes by Winston Churchill on The Second World War in which he recalls warning the House of Commons in 1935, to little avail, of the growing threat from Nazi Germany

This short poem was quoted by Winston Churchill in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, of his six-volume history, The Second World War. On page 110, he recalls a debate in the House of Commons on 19 March 1935 on the air estimates (ie. money to pay for the production of aircraft) when as a back bencher he challenged the government’s assurances that the budget was adequate to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany, who had reached parity with Britain in the number of aircraft. He wrote ‘Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make  Parliament and the nation heed the warning  … was an experience most painful’.

Reflecting on the debate, he said ‘there lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown author about a railway accident, I had learnt from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton’. He then quotes the lines above, and ends ‘However, I did not repeat them’. In this clip from the 2002 TV film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie, his wife, Churchill angrily quotes the lines following his warnings being ignored by the government.

The poem was in fact taken from a much longer poem titled Death and His Brother Sleep which appeared in Volume 99 of Punch magazine published on 4 October 1890 and which was attributed to ‘Queen Mab’. The poem was written by Edwin James Milliken (1839 -1897) who, as well as being a poet, was an editor of Punch, a journalist and satirical humorist. The shorter poem is made up of the first two lines and last four lines of Death and His Brother Sleep, but how Churchill came to use only these lines is not known, though they do have a dramatic effect.

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