Friday 22 March 2013


Nigel Swift, in his poetic researches, has discovered an unpublished version of the poem from Tennyson’s In Memoriam that begins:

“Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead ...”

and ends:

“I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.”

Nigel thinks that, while this earlier version may lack some of the beauties of the published one, it certainly makes its point more clearly. 
Old Yew, which grasps at the cold stones
That  name the under-lying dead,
What thoughts revolve in your dull head?
Why do you mutter in such tones?

The seasons slowly swing around
And bring the snow and bloom and fruit,
But like a gentleman in a suit
You stand there staring at the ground.

And in your shade, from morn till eve, 
I stand here writing reams of verse;
My voice it rumbles like a hearse;
It is a place I rarely leave.

Month after month, without hope or view,
I stand beside this grave and mourn.
The truth approaches, like the dawn:
O tree!  I’m turning into you.

(Nigel Swift’s note:  Corrections on the manuscript show that Tennyson was in some doubt as how to spell the last word of this poem.  This may have been what led him to abandon this otherwise irreproachable version.)

Thursday 7 March 2013

The Obverse

All things in Heaven – for what it’s worth –
Have their counterparts on Earth.
Each sky-borne thing – don’t let me start –
Has its earthly counterpart.

For every cloud, a lump of coal,
For every star, a tiny hole,
For every bird that flies around,
A worm that travels in the ground.

Even a poet, a clod like I,
Has his version in the sky:
And that one’s poetry – no surprise –
Is witty, bright and wonderfully wise.

Algernon Swift recalls meeting Miles Prothero, the originator of these lines:  

I enquired after the mystical meaning of the second verse but Prothero quickly digressed onto his peculiar theory about birds and worms, saying:

“If one considers the physical law of equal and opposite forces, it quickly becomes apparent that whenever a bird pulls a worm from the earth, at the same time the worm pulls the bird under the ground.” 

I diligently brought the conversation back to the meaning of the poem as a whole.  I said I took it to be concerned with Platonic Ideas.  

Prothero replied: 

“All Art is an attempt to bring into the world something as near to perfection as possible.  

“But what I suppose I was trying to say was, if perfect versions of everything already exist - as they do according to Plato - one doesn’t really need to bother!  A better version of whatever one’s trying to make is out there already so a bodge job is as good as anything.  

“I find that an incredibly reassuring thought!”   

Whereupon he gave me a cheery wave and departed on his bicycle, which I had noticed was in a calamitous state of disrepair.