“My dearest dust”
Perhaps we all can remember the first anthology of poetry we ever used in school or for personal use. Mine was Palgreave’s Golden Treasury, which back in the day was something of a classic. I wish I still had my copy which would include marginal checkmarks or notes next to poems I particularly liked–even though I’m sure I would be embarrassed by some of the selections now.
I recently bought The Penguin Book of English Verse, edited by Paul Keegan. Eleven hundred pages long, it includes verse from the Rawlinson Lyrics (early 14th century) down to the 1990s. Three features distinguish it from other anthologies. First, it retains the spelling and punctuation of original publications, with glosses provided only for medieval verse and poems written in Scots. Second, it is, Keegan notes, “arranged by poem rather than by poet, with each poem entering the sequence according to the date of its first appearance…. In other words, poems are restored to the moment when they became known to the public for whom the poet wrote.” … “Thus poems by the same poet are often dispersed in these pages, and poems by different poets follow upon each other. They also face each other, and sometimes answer or act in disagreement with each other’s forms of knowing and proceeding.” Full indexes permit one to find all the poems of single authors.
Third, Keegan has included a fuller and richer selection of poetry by women than has been common in anthologies of this sort. Two of these poems in particular have struck me. The first is from the monument for her husband erected in 1641 by Lady Katherine Dyer in the little church of St. Denis in Colmworth, England.
My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.
The second poem is a lovely thing by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928), whom I had never heard of before:
A Quoi Bon Dire
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye:
And everybody thinks you are dead
So I as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, and I shall have tossed your hair.
This led me to look for other poems by Mew, among which was this haunting piece (not included in Keegan’s anthology):
The Farmer’s Bride
Three summer’s since I chose a maid,
Too young may be – but more’s to do
At harvest time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman-
More like a little frightened fay.
One night, in the fall, she runned away.
“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her fast.
She does the work about the house,
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk keep away.
“Not near, Not near,” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me ?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low grey sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas- time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house but we.
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh! My God! the down,
The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair ! her hair !