Classic Poetry


William F Kirk

Cricket World Cup is underway where there is not much separating the top six teams. Baseball Spring training is also underway with hope springing eternal, except in perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirate fans. Since I am a fan of both the events, and what they represent, I present this poem from William F Kirk, a baseball writer and humorist from early 1900s. The poem is among a collection of baseball ballads titled Right Off the Bat that was published in 1911 and very recently released on Proect Gutenburg, a site I am utterly addicted to. It presents a simple and humorous contrast in the spirit with which the two sports are played, or more specifically Kirk’s notion of that spirit from back then. Cricket has tried desperately to cling on to the nature of mannerly Captain Edgerton (must have been a stereotype even in 1911) while baseball managers have changed little since Manager McDuff.


Cricket And Baseball by William F Kirk

The cricket game was over and the sun was sinking low,
    The players in their blazers plodded homeward in a row.
They stopped within the clubhouse for a final cup of tea,
    When up spake Captain Edgerton to Bowler Basil Fee:

“Jolly well tried, old chap!
    You lost as the greatest can;
But whether you win or whether you lose
    You’re always a gentleman.
Have a Scotch and soda, old fellow–
    It will drive off the blooming blues;
Keep up your stride, you jolly well tried,
    And a man can’t always lose.”

The baseball game was over and the home team had been skinned,
    The players slunk across the field while sundry knockers grinned;
They hurried to the clubhouse for a bath and change of garb,
    When up spake Manager McDuff, and each word was a barb:

“Fine lot of high-priced athletes!
    Most of you ain’t alive!
I could pick a team from the Soldiers’ Home
    And beat you four out of five.
Be out here at ten to-morrow–
    That goes the way that it lays;
Any mixed-ale sport that doesn’t report
    Will squat on the bench ten days!”

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Henry Wotton (1568 - 1639)

Henry Wotton (1568 - 1639)

HOW happy is he born and taught 
  That serveth not another’s will; 
Whose armour is his honest thought 
  And simple truth his utmost skill; 
 
Whose passions not his masters are;
  Whose soul is still prepared for death, 
Not tied unto the world with care 
  Of public fame, or private breath; 
 
Who envies none that chance doth raise, 
  Or vice; who never understood 
How deepest wounds are given by praise, 
  Nor rules of state, but rules of good; 
 
Who hath his life from rumours freed, 
  Whose conscience is his strong retreat; 
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
  Nor ruin make accusers great; 
 
Who God doth late and early pray 
  More of His grace than gifts to lend; 
And entertains the harmless day 
  With a well-chosen book or friend;
 
—This man is freed from servile bands 
  Of hope to rise, or fear to fall; 
Lord of himself, though not of lands; 
  And having nothing, yet hath all.


First printed in early 1600s, these timeless words from the well known poem of Henry Wotton have a remarkable power to cut through a cluttered mind.

Sarojini Naidu (ca. 1896)

Sarojini Naidu (ca. 1896)

Once in the dream of a night I stood
Lone in the light of a magical wood,
Soul-deep in visions that poppy-like sprang;
And spirits of Truth were the birds that sang,
And spirits of Love were the stars that glowed,
And spirits of Peace were the streams that flowed
In that magical wood in the land of sleep.

Lone in the light of that magical grove,
I felt the stars of the spirits of Love
Gather and gleam round my delicate youth,
And I heard the song of the spirits of Truth;
To quench my longing I bent me low
By the streams of the spirits of Peace that flow
In that magical wood in the land of sleep.


Published in 1905,  The Golden Threshold, a collection of songs and poems from Sarojini Naidu features this song under Songs of Music.  Sarojini was somewhat of a childhood prodigy and was just 17 years old when she wrote many of the poems in that book.  Born and brought up in my hometown, Hyderabad, she was sent to England against her will in 1895 at the age of 16, partly because her affinity to Dr. Govindurajulu Naidu, her husband later, was not received well between the two families.  She returned to Hyderabad in 1898 and ignited  a major societal scandal later that year by breaking through the ridiculous caste barrier and marrying Dr. Naidu – might not seem like much now, but an act of great courage and conviction in those days.

She later joined the Indian Congress, and followed Gandhi in the fight for Indian Independence and became the first woman Governor in India, when she became the Governor of Uttar Pradesh after Independence.  She died in 1949, while in office, but her life and works left a great impression and a lasting legacy for many Indians to follow.

From the time I came across her poems in high school, her work always remained close to me, not just because she was a once-great-personality from my city, but she saw beauty all around her and presented it beautifully through her poems and songs, and though it is not the same city anymore, I can see the romanticized Hyderabad of old from her Nightfall in the city of Hyderabad ..

Charminar

Charminar

….

See the white river that flashes and scintillates,

Curved like a tusk from the mouth of the city-gates.

Hark, from the minaret, how the muezzin’s call

Floats like a battle-flag over the city wall.

From trellised balconies, languid and luminous

Faces gleam, veiled in a splendour voluminous.

Leisurely elephants wind through the winding lanes,

Swinging their silver bells hung from their silver chains.

Round the high Char Minar sounds of gay cavalcades

Blend with the music of cymbals and serenades.

….


….
See the white river that flashes and scintillates,
Curved like a tusk from the mouth of the city-gates.
Hark, from the minaret, how the muezzin’s call
Floats like a battle-flag over the city wall.
From trellised balconies, languid and luminous
Faces gleam, veiled in a splendour voluminous.
Leisurely elephants wind through the winding lanes,
Swinging their silver bells hung from their silver chains.
Round the high Char Minar sounds of gay cavalcades
Blend with the music of cymbals and serenades.
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
WalterDeLaMare

Walter De La Mare

Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,

Knocking on the moonlit door;

And his horse in the silence champed the grass

Of the forest’s ferny floor;

And a bird flew up out of the turret,

Above the Traveller’s head:

And he smote upon the door again a second time;

Is there anybody there?” he said.

But no one descended to the Traveller;

No head from the leaf-fringed sill

Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,

Where he stood perplexed and still.

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight

To that voice from the world of men:

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,

That goes down to the empty hall,

Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken

By the lonely Traveller’s call.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,

Their stillness answering his cry,

While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,

‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;

For he suddenly smote on the door, even

Louder, and lifted his head:

Tell them I came, and no one answered,

That I kept my word,” he said.

Never the least stir made the listeners,

Though every word he spake

Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house

From the one man left awake:

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,

And the sound of iron on stone,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

When the plunging hoofs were gone.


This is one of  my all time favorites from Walter de la Mare that immediately sets you up with a sense of unknown.  Read it once, you are drawn into the eerie realm of a lone house with leaf-fringed sill and a moonlit door in a ferny floored forest.. read it twice and you wonder about the mystery of the nocturnal traveler, and read it again the mystery deepens, and the more you try to solve it, the more it remains unresolved.  You can make your own interpretations each time and you just might unwittingly be that phantom listener that lets our mysterious traveler ride past you ignoring his knock on the door asking “Is there anybody there?

Here’s a tribute from that literary critic extraordinare, T.S.Eliott as he refers to Walter de la Mare’s  “whispered incantations which allows free passage to the phantoms of the mind”..

To Walter de la Mare — by T.S. Eliot


The children who explored the brook and found

A desert island with a sandy cove

(A hiding place, but very dangerous ground,

 

For here the water buffalo may rove,

The kinkajou, the mungabey, abound

In the dark jungle of a mango grove,

 

And shadowy lemurs glide from tree to tree –

The guardians of some long-lost treasure-trove)

Recount their exploits at the nursery tea

 

And when the lamps are lit and curtains drawn

Demand some poetry, please. Whose shall it be,

At not quite time for bed? …

 

Or when the lawn

Is pressed by unseen feet, and ghosts return

Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn,

The sad intangible who grieve and yearn;

 

When the familiar is suddenly strange

Or the well known is what we yet have to learn,

And two worlds meet, and intersect, and change;

 

When cats are maddened in the moonlight dance,

Dogs cower, flitter bats, and owls range

At witches’ sabbath of the maiden aunts;

 

When the nocturnal traveller can arouse

No sleeper by his call; or when by chance

An empty face peers from an empty house;

 

By whom, and by what means, was this designed?

The whispered incantation which allows

Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

 

By you; by those deceptive cadences

Wherewith the common measure is refined;

By conscious art practised with natural ease;

 

By the delicate, invisible web you wove –

The inexplicable mystery of sound.

..describing the art of pitching..

..describing the "art" of pitching..

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at.

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended.  He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much.  Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberrant willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.


Thats a clever little poem from Robert Francis, seemingly describing the prowess of a skilled baseball pitcher, but a metaphor for any artist superior at his or her craft – a painter, a sculptor, a poet, a writer and not just a baseball pitcher. Is it any surprise then to read that Robert Frost was his mentor.