As on the highway’s quiet edge

This Is a nice descriptive landscape poem from Frances Cornford, dealing with a bucolic country scene in Norfolk, near the coast. This is a beautiful part of England, probably under-appreciated, but still relatively unspoilt. Indeed it is a sort of vision of England, rather in the tradition of Gray’s Elegy – a humble country labourer plies his trade amid a country scene which you could imagine unchanged for hundreds of years.

The Coast: Norfolk

As on the highway’s quiet edge
He mows the grass beside the hedge,
The old man has for company
The distant, grey, salt-smelling sea,
A poppied field, a cow and calf,
The finches on the telegraph.
Across his faded back a hone,
He slowly, slowly scythes alone
In silence of the wind-soft air,
With ladies’ bedstraw everywhere,
With whitened corn, and tarry poles,
And far-off gulls like risen souls.

Frances Darwin Cornford

From <;

Nothing much happens in this poem. Indeed it could just as well be a painting, the impact would be very similar. Here, reading the words creates the image in our minds – an old man using a scythe to cut the grass near a field of poppies bordered by the hedge, and the sea not far away. There are birds – finches and gulls, the land and the sea are both at hand. The scene is calm and timeless, life is slow here.

And there is some formal consistency as well, for those that care to look for it – rhyming couplets, 8 syllables to a line. The simplicity of the subject masks well the craft of the poet – as it should, sometimes.

The Poetry Dude


Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,

This is one of those poems that seems incomprehensible in hindsight, bit which was probably quite mainstream in the 1930s. There are some in this vein by Neruda, for example. It is a poem written on the death of a Russian Communist official, probably murdered on Stalin’s orders, who has himself been responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities. Today we would think it is probably good for the world that such folk get bumped off, but at that time there was still the notion of Communism as a force for good and the personalities of Communist leaders were almost venerated.
So the death of Kirov would have seemed a natural subject for a gifted English poet with Communist sympathies, as was John Cornford. And there is some pathos in the subject matter when we know that Cornford went on to be killed in the Spanish Civil War as a very young man, not quite 21, fighting against Franco’s forces.

Sergei Mironovitch Kirov

Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,
To-day is overturning yesterday’s settled good.
Everything dying keeps a hungry grip on life.
Nothing is ever born without screaming and blood.
Understand the weapon, understand the wound:
What shapeless past was hammered to action by his deeds,
Only in constant action was his constant certainty found.
He will throw a longer shadow as time recedes.

Rupert John Cornford

From <;

The poem only refers to the incident which inspired it in the title. The body of the poem describes the constant turmoil, instability and violence of a revolution such as Kirov was a main player in. It accepts that people suffer and die to bring about the new world, “nothing is ever born without screaming and blood”. The poem also seems to recognize that action itself, with all its destructive power, could become an end in itself, such that the cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. Despite this bleak and terrible message, the poem Is clearly meant to be in praise of Kirov and his like, with the last line implying that his legacy and reputation will grow as time passes. This is the tragic illusion of that generation. I wonder what would be the equivalent today? Poems in praise of Osama Bin Laden, perhaps?

The Poetry Dude

With what attentive courtesy he bent

Frances Cornford was either grand-daughter or great-niece of Charles Darwin, he of the theory of evolution; and mother of the young Spanish Civil War poet, John Cornford, who was killed in action. But her poetry has a voice which deserves to be heard in its own right, not just as an addendum to other famous lives.
This poem is a wonderful vignette, capturing a moment which can easily be missed but which has its own delicate beauty. And I always enjoy the tuning up whenever I go to a concert.

The Guitarist Tunes Up
Poem by Frances Darwin Cornford
With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument;
Not as a lordly conquerer who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.

From <;

The central image here is of the guitarist leaning over his instrument as if he was caressing his lover, and, in a sense, it is a similar experience of oneness and single-minded attention. And both moments, tuning the guitar and getting up close with a lover, usually lead to sweet music afterwards.

The Poetry Dude

The past, a glacier, gripped the mountain wall,

This is a war poem from John Cornford, who was killed in action during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when still a very young man. Unlike many of the other war poems, either of World War One, or other conflicts, this piece does not dwell on the horrors and absurdities of war, but of a particular aspect of the soldier’s experience- perceptions of the passing of time while waiting to go into action, knowing that death might be imminent.

The moment is at night under the full moon, awaiting the order to attack the city of Huesca, on the Aragon front in eastern Spain. Presumably the attack is to take place at dawn, hoping to catch the defenders still sleepy or unprepared. But we learn nothing of the outcome here or the manner of the battle, this poem is a reflection on the irresistible progress of time, bringing the soldiers ever closer to their moment of truth.

Full Moon At Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca

The past, a glacier, gripped the mountain wall,
And time was inches, dark was all.
But here it scales the end of the range,
The dialectic’s point of change,
Crashes in light and minutes to its fall.

Time present is a cataract whose force
Breaks down the banks even at its source
And history forming in our hands
Not plasticine but roaring sands,
Yet we must swing it to its final course.

The intersecting lines that cross both ways,
Time future, has no image in space,
Crooked as the road that we must tread,
Straight as our bullets fly ahead.
We are the future. The last fight let us face.

From <;

In the experience of these soldiers, the passage of time reaches a tipping point as the attack approaches. It is transformed from being like a glacier, extremely slow moving into a roaring, crashing waterfall, unstoppable and faster than thought. Thus the soldier is inexorably swept forward towards his fate, like a twig carried over Niagara Falls, insignificant and powerless to stop time putting him in front of the enemy.

Each stanza describes the characteristics of the experience of time, in the past, in the present, and in the future. But the future cannot be seen, it has no image, only the notion that bullets will fly and the soldier must face what might be his last fight, his last day of life.

The poem is very moving and it captures wonderfully the soldiers plight at the critical moment when he knows he must soon fight and perhaps die.

The Poetry Dude

Who has not seen their lover

Frances Cornford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin and mother of poet John Cornford, wrote this poem on the emotions of seeing a lover walking down the street. “The Avenue” is a short poem to capture the particular emotion of a particular moment, but it sets out to have universal connection to anybody who has been in love.

The Avenue

Who has not seen their lover
Walking at ease,
Walking like any other
A pavement under trees,
Not singular, apart,
But footed, featured, dressed,
Approaching like the rest
In the same dapple of the summer caught;
Who has not suddenly thought
With swift surprise:
There walks in cool disguise,
There comes, my heart.

…..The Avenue by Frances Cornford (1886-1960)

From <;

What this poem does so elegantly is connect a banal everyday moment – someone watching other people walk down the street or avenue – with the magical experience of being in love. Just the fact that the loved one is in the observer’s field of vision transforms the scene and the experience into one of joy, fulfillment and wonder. The state of being in love has made the scene into a heart-warming and uplifting moment.

This for me is one of the beauties of poetry – it can bring us back to a state of wonder and appreciation of small moments, everyday experiences and fleeting moments which we ignore most of the time. Poetry and beauty are all around if we could just be open to it.

The Poetry Dude

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

Today I am posting a poignant war poem, from John Cornford, who was killed at a young age in the Spanish Civil War shortly after writing this poem, and the one posted on October 16th 2014. It follows the tradition of poems written in World War One depicting the horrors and senselessness of war. The title refers to the region in Spain where Cornford was engaged, one of the front lines between government and insurgent forces in 1936 and 1937.

A Letter from Aragon

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

From <;

The mechanism for accentuating the poignancy of this poem is the repetition throughout the poem of the statement that this is a quiet front, ie no intensive fighting or shelling, both sides pretty much just consolidating their defensive lines with no major effort to change the status quo. But then within this context, each stanza paints a picture of a horrific situation, the direct consequence of the conflict. A rotting dead body of a comrade being untidily buried; women and children living in fear and squalor in affected villages; wounded soldiers lying in pain in hospital. The clear message is that the consequences of war are pervasive and terrible for all affected.

I don’t know what is meant by H.E. on line 11. Any suggestions?

Cornford was a committed Communist, so the last stanza brings the poem back to the political level, obviously with the intention that this should be a rallying cry for more of the working classes of England and elsewhere to come and fight for the government in Spain. It would be interesting to speculate whether Cornford would have evolved his thinking, as did George Orwell, if he had lived longer and experienced more of the Communist sabotaging of the Spanish government war effort by suppressing non-Communist factions in the fight.

The Poetry Dude

The spirits of children are remote and wise

Anybody who is, or has been, a parent of young children will recognize and empathise with the sentiments of today’s poem, ” Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents” by Frances Cornford. It nails the rollercoaster demands of children, whose imaginations seem to know no constraint, while we adults have to constantly adapt to keep up and react accordingly without damaging the child’s ability to use its fertile mind in any direction whatever.

Poem: “Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents,” by Frances Cornford.

Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents
The spirits of children are remote and wise,
They must go free
Like fishes in the sea
Or starlings in the skies,
Whilst you remain
The shore where casually they come again.
But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows, with silver bells;
Where heart-distracting magic birds are seen
And all the things a fairy-story tells;
Though still you should possess
Roots that go deep in ordinary earth,
And strong consoling bark
To love and to caress.
Last, when at dark
Safe on the pillow lies an up-gazing head
And drinking holy eyes
Are fixed on you,
When, from behind them, questions come to birth
On all the things that you have ever said
Of suns and snakes and parallelograms and flies,
And whether these are true,
Then for a while you’ll need to be no more
That sheltering shore
Or legendary tree in safety spread,
No, then you must put on
The robes of Solomon,
Or simply be
Sir Isaac Newton sitting on the bed

Whatever mode we are in as parents, we must tune in to the wants, needs, concerns, fears, questions, moods and wild imaginings of our children and act accordingly, without shutting off any possibility, “They must go free”. It is a hard ask, and most parents fall short, at least some of the time. The parent represents stability, reason, protection, reassurance, knowledge, wisdom, entertainment and everything else to the young child (I’m thinking this is about between the ages of 2 and 5, perhaps). This poem captures these roles beautifully, and leaves unsaid how hard it is to live up to them all the time.

We may consider there is added poignancy to this poem by the fact that we know the poet was the mother of John Cornford ( see blog post of October 16th), who was killed in the Spanish Civil War when he was 21. But this poem must date from well before that tragedy, I assume, so maybe the poignancy is misplaced. In any event, this poem has a resonance that goes far beyond any one circumstance, evoking a very widespread experience of parenthood.


The Poetry Dude