This ae nighte, this ae nighte…

OK, so I grew up with Tolkein.  On the bedrooms walls of most of my fellow students, wedged between the one of Che in a beret and the one of the man with the very long legs striding above the legend Keep On Truckin’, was a purple and yellow one of Gandalf. I remember the coarse texture of the paper, and the violence of the colours.

So the idea of poems being spells or incantations is kind of inbuilt. How could they be anything else? But of course, that may be just a ’70s thing.

I wrote a poem about a mouse many years ago, as one does. This is it, it’s only little:

A Conversation

The Mouse sits on my shoulder through the night.

Again, I sharpen quills and drag my books into the light.

But oh, the hours are long and I grow old.

Magic’s not wanted now, I whisper

Spells will be mocked and songs are out of season.

All the more need for you, my Wizardess.

All the more reason.

Of course the Wizardess is me – all characters in people’s poems are aspects of the poet, just as all characters in a novel are aspects of the novelist. And the mouse is a kind of play on muse – Mouse/Muse? No? That’s why he’s got a capital letter, because really he’s a character from Greek Mythology.

However did I survive to be this old, if I felt that old in those days?

I have a habit of picking up a paperback, reading a few pages and putting it back on the shelf. Since the house is stuffed with paperbacks going way back beyond Gandalf and Keep On Truckin’ it becomes a kind of random, inspiration-finding exercise. I tend to believe connecting snippets of information, ideas,  thoughts – like Marvell’s nectaren and curious peach – ‘into my hand themselves will reach’ – from the rows of crumbling, tea-coloured paperbacks on my bookshelves.

This morning I picked up and briefly perused Understanding Poetry by James Reeves. This is a very old book (Australia 90c, South Africa 75c, United Kingdom 6/-) and James Reeves must surely be deceased by now but it remains one of the best books about poetry ever for the newbie poet (so hate that word but Needs Must When The Devil Drives).

And this is what I found:

A poem, then, is an act, not simply a statement… it is an act of magic. And of the magic of the act rhythm is an essential part.

He then goes on to include the Cumberland Lake-Wyke chant, which was a chant used at the death rites over a corpse in the north of England, up till as late as the 17th Century. He shared it with me and so I’ll share it with you, just for the magic of it:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass, Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

I won’t go through and translate every word, thereby spoiling it, but if you’re interested go to http://www.duntemann.com/likewakepage.htm. I would link it but the elves at WordPress scarily ‘disappeared’ my entire draft post when I tried to and it’s taken me half an hour of exasperatedly Googling message boards or whatever those dire things are, to wrest it from them. (Oh, now it’s gone and linked itself…)

 

Featured Image: Cyra R Cancel, Florida: Black Cat & White Mouse-Wizards

All things which live below the sky

I never really thought about light pollution until I started to think about ghosts. It just occurred to me: if all the unnecessary light we generate nowadays hinders astronomers in their exploration of the heavens, might it not also hinder ghosts in their…manifestations? I mean, maybe they’re all around us but we can no longer see them because the shadows have gone, there are no dark corners.

Just out of interest I looked up photo pollution. It had never occurred to me that our man-made high light levels may be affecting things like our health, ecosystems and the life-cycles of animals, and may also be having subtler and as yet unknown effects. Spooky.

Digression/connection/synchronous occurrence:

A magpie has just landed on a telegraph wire right outside my window. There it sits – gosh, it’s huge – you never get to see magpies that close up normally – waggling about like a high-wire walker trying to keep its balance. Do you think birds could be coming closer? Yesterday I stepped out into my garden to collect the washing; perched on the clothes-airer, atop my washing but not as yet polluting it, was a huge pigeon and it didn’t fly away. I walked right up to it and asked it if it was OK. It continued to sit there for a moment or two, eye to eye, before flapping away in slow motion. Do you think this could mean something? I just keep thinking of birds being harbingers of death. All those folk-tales about birds coming to carry off the soul of the about-to-be-departed. Bear with me and I’ll look that up in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Oooh…yes:

Many old highland families had particular death omens that came to them in the shape of a bird of unidentifiable species; at the moment of death, it was alleged to scream horribly. The bird was called an t-eun bàis. A similar bird, the tamhusg, appeared to people in parts of the Island of Skye. On Barra there is still a tradition of a huge, white-speckled bird whose nightly screeching is a sure sign of approaching evil or bad luck.

But then, the birds I saw weren’t unidentifiable. I mean, clearly they were a pigeon and a magpie. But there’s something else – something from a long way back, connected with The Garden by Andrew Marvell…

  • Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
  • Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
  • Casting the body’s vest aside,
  • My soul into the boughs does glide;
  • There like a bird it sits and sings,
  • Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
  • And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
  • Waves in its plumes the various light.

So the soul, releasing itself from the poet’s body, perches in the trees like a bird.

But there’s a superstition, earlier than that…robins!

The robin was said to have tried to remove the thorns from Christ’s head during the crucifixion, injuring itself in the process. A drop of Christ’s blood fell on the bird and that was how it got its red breast. The red breast was also said to have come from robin having flown water into Hell for the burning sinners. The hand that kills a robin will shake thereafter. If you own a cow, the milk will become blood-coloured. If you break robin’s eggs something valuable of your own will be broken. Whatever harm you do to a robin, some equivalent harm is bound to happen to you. A robin flying in through an open window or tapping on the window is a sign of death being present. Strangely enough, I remember Ex rescuing a robin. He passed the house of a woman who didn’t much care for animals. She was sitting in her window-seat, talking on the telephone. Inside her house a robin was trapped, flying around in a panic, banging against the window pane right in front of her in its attempts to escape, while she ignored it. Ex being Ex – uninterested in humans but valiant in defence of the meanest of sparrows* – he marched into her house via the open front door and slammed open the sash window, while she was still talking, to let the bird out. And a year or so later she was dead, I can’t remember what of.

  • A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
  • Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
  • Auguries of Innocence: William Blake

He also told me once that in his family a bird singing insistently outside a sick person’s window was taken for a sign that they were not long for this world.

How far we are wandering from ghosts and yet…not.

I wrote a couple of posts about doppelgangers (or doppelgänger) a while back, but I just learned something new, and that is why it is so bad to catch sight of your double. It seems the doppelganger, like the poltergeist, is another example of the ghost-that-is-not-a-ghost. Whereas the poltergeist is thought to be some kind of energy released by adolescents, the doppelganger is a form of fetch or wraith. It appears only once to its twin (you) before engulfing them (you) in the final embrace of death.

But what of classical ghosts – apparitions, real or imaginary, that are in some way connected with the souls of the departed? More to follow, dragons’ teeth permitting.

  • *Beneath his heaven there’s room for all;
  • he gives to all their meat;
  • he sees the meanest sparrow fall
  • unnoticed in the street.
  • All Things Which Live Below The Sky: Edward John Brailsford (1841-1921)