Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unspoken - Edwin Morgan

When the troopship was pitching round the Cape
in '41, and there was a lull in the night uproar of
    seas and winds, and a sudden full moon
swung huge out of the darkness like the world it is,
and we all crowded into the wet deck, leaning on
    the rail, our arms on each other's shoulders,
    gazing at the savage outcrop of great Africa.
and Tommy Cosh started singing 'Mandalay' and
    we joined in with our raucous chorus of the
    unforgettable song,
and the dawn came up like thunder like that
    moon drawing the water of our yearning
though we were going to war, and left us exalted,
that was happiness,
but it is not like that.

When the television newscaster said
the second sputnik was up, not empty,
but with a small dog on board,
a half-ton treasury of life orbiting a thousand
    miles above the thin television masts and mists
    of November,
in clear space, heard, observed,
the faint far heartbeat sending back its message
steady and delicate,
and I was stirred by a deep confusion of feelings,
got up, stood with my back to the wall and my
    palms pressed hard against it, my arms held
    wide
as if I could spring from the earth ---
not loath myself to go out that very day where
    Laika had shown man, felt
my cheeks burning with old Promethean warmth
rekindled --- ready ---
covered my face with my hands, seeing only an
    animal
strapped in a doomed capsule, but the future
    was still there, cool and whole like the moon,
waiting to be taken, smiling even
as the dog's bones and the elaborate casket of
    aluminium
glow white and fuse in the arc of re-entry
and I knew what I felt was history,
its thrilling brilliance came down,
came down,
comes down on us all, bringing pride and pity,
but it is not like that.

But Glasgow days and grey weathers, when the
    rain
beat on the bus shelter and you leaned slightly
    against me, and the back of your hand touched
    my hand in the shadows, and nothing was
    said
when your hair grazed mine accidentally as we
    talked in a cafe, yet not quite accidentally,
when I stole a glance at your face as we stood in a
    doorway and found I was afraid
of what might happen if I should never see it again,
when we met, and met, in spite of such differences
    in our lives,
and did the common things that in our feeling
became extraordinary, so that our first kiss
was like the winter morning moon, and as you
    shifted in my arms
it was the sea changing the shingle that changes
    it
as if for ever (but we are bound by nothing, but
    like smoke
to mist or light in water we move, and mix) ---
O then it was a story as old as war or man
and although we have not said it we know it,
and although we have not claimed it we do it,
and although we have not vowed it we keep it,
without a name to the end

Edwin Morgan (1920 - 2010)


This poem reflects back on three distinct events in the life of the poet. Three highlights and each event with high emotional content and clearly memorable - to the extent that words cannot be spoken in any description - and hence the title is clear ... words always fail in trying to communicate to another.

The question is how much of an essence is conveyed ... and that, of course, depends on the reader as much as the words themselves.

The three stanzas could easily be three separate poems in their own right. They conjure up very different images. It is hard for the reader to switch thought between each recollection – at least it was for me when I first read this poem.

There are number links across the stanzas … the prime one being the depth of feeling … but the moon occurs in each stanza …

The moon is considered to rule the senses and emotions. It is an archetype for the fickle and changeable. Furthermore, the moon's phases are often connected with female attributes. The phases feature references to the Maiden, the Mother, the Matron, and the Crone … this paragraph taken from Wikipedia.

… each stanza represents an unearthly experience … the moon has mystery, another world … unknown … just as these personal experiences will always remain unknown … how can we really describe/share those very personal happenings in our life!

… the troopship rounding the Cape in moonlight happened when Edwin was only 21 … so despite going to war the adventure of seeing Africa from the ship was paramount … the war had yet to make a personal impact … what an apt world to choose to define Africa (=savage) ... a double meaning in the context of the journey to war … note that the last line of the stanza underlines the title … a discount to all that he has said

… the second stanza is later in Edwin’s life … that contrast between the fate of Laika and the precursor to the future of manned space travel … what an achievement for man, for Laika … the falling back of the debris is mirrored to the concept of history coming down … again the last line negates the text … today we take manned space travel for granted … fortunately no Laika is needed to test procedures … (Promethean = boldly creative) ... the moon ready to be taken - and in a sense this has happened

… the last stanza … the first kiss equated to winter morning moon … the sea changing shingle – never to be the same again … but the last five lines are a change from the first two stanzas (it is not like that) … now we have the affirmative … We Know It without being said … We Do It without the need for statement … We Keep It without vow … it is as though there is something deep inherent in us (unspoken) … as old as man … and really when it comes down to it is the very core of our being … the touch of love

… and of course there is unspoken commonality that can be shared without the need for words

Edwin Morgan - Scotland's greatest poet? ... here is a website link ...

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