The twenty-fourth of May, 2011: their hearts are set upon the waste fells

Our t-dropping, vowel-flattening northern spin-off of London’s lovely Liars’ League officially opens for business this week. The League is looking for stories on the theme North & South – so in a nod to that, here’s a poem.

When I am living in the Midlands

That are sodden and unkind,

I light my lamp in the evening:

My work is left behind;

And the great hills of the South Country

Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country

They stand along the sea;

And it’s there walking in the high woods

That I could wish to be,

And the men that were boys when I was a boy

Walking along with me.

The men that live in North England

I saw them for a day:

Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,

Their skies are fast and grey:

From their castle-walls a man may see

The mountains far away.

That’s from ‘The South Country’ by Hilaire Belloc. It goes on for a fair while longer, but I  won’t quote any more because it all gets a bit nauseating (‘But the men that live in the South Country/Are the kindest and most wise’).

I found ‘The South Country’ in one of the first poetry books I ever seriously read: The Golden Book of Modern English Poetry 1870-1930, T. Caldwell ed. (JM Dent & Sons, 1930). It’s full of selections from what we might call the Doggerel Age – the sort of thing that Molesworth is taught to recite at school,  and that Bertie Wooster likes to drop into conversation.

Being too late for Tennyson, too early for Auden and Eliot and too English for Yeats, it’s mostly rot (save Hardy, Chesterton, Kipling and a ragged battalion of war poets):  Noyes (but no ‘The Highwayman’, boo!), Masefield, Hodgson, Rolleston. It’s a miserable parade of mediocrity – unless you’re fourteen and it’s the first poetry book you’ve ever seriously read, in which case it’s just great.

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