The twentieth of September, 2011: the goat and compasses

A poem, stumbled across in a 1922 anthology of poems.

When evening came and the warm glow grew deeper,

And every tree that bordered the green meadows,

And in the yellow cornfields every reaper

And every corn-shock stood above their shadows

Flung eastward from their feet in longer measure,

Serenely far there swam in the sunny height

A buzzard and his mate who took their pleasure

Swirling and poising idly in golden light.

On great pied motionless moth-wings borne along,

So effortless and so strong,

Cutting each other’s paths together they glided,

Then wheeled asunder till they soared divided

Two valleys’ width (as though it were delight

To part like this, being sure they could unite

So swiftly in their empty, free dominion),

Curved headlong downward, towered up the sunny steep,

Then, with a sudden lift of the one great pinion,

Swung proudly to a curve, and from its height

Took half a mile of sunlight in one long sweep.

And so we, so small on the swift immense hillside,

Stood tranced, until our souls arose uplifted

On those far-sweeping, wide,

Strong curves of flight – swayed up and hugely drifted,

Were washed, made strong and beautiful in the tide

Of sun-bathed air. But far beneath, beholden

Through shining deeps of air, the fields were golden

And rosy burned the heather where the cornfields ended.

And still those buzzards whirled, while light withdrew

Out of the vales and to surging slopes ascended,

Till the loftiest flaming summit died to blue.

‘The Buzzards’, by Martin Armstrong. I don’t know anything about Martin Armstrong, but I love ‘pied motionless moth-wings’ (as the poet Matt Merritt has pointed out, one of the striking things about buzzards is how different they can look in different circumstances), and I love the sense of encroaching dusk, which recalls Edward Thomas’ Two Pewits “riding the dark surge silently”.

I’ve just looked up Martin Armstrong in the DNB, and am now faintly embarrassed to admit to never having heard of him. In brief: poet and novelist (1882-1974), Newcastle-born, author of The Buzzards And Other Poems (1921) and novels including The Goat and Compasses (1925) (good name for a pub), associated with the then-popular Georgian poets de la Mare and Blunden.

Anthony Bertram described him as:

essentially level-headed, and his keen mind, his tolerance and his wit were never marred by prejudice. It was that balance which enabled him to write such exquisite prose; and it was a fine human sympathy, working unostentatiously under his dry exterior, that flowered in the tenderness of his stories. Through his poems, but never in his workaday life, one saw into a glamorous and tragic imagination.

I fear he lived and worked in a time when it was very hard to be a good poet.

And now, having opened that book to type out the poem, my hands smell like a second-hand bookshop.


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