Poetry is one of the ways I attempt make sense of the world and seek to understand its heady variousness. At the moment the news is full of upheaval and change – some seems welcome and long overdue; some appearing as if it might herald the apocalypse. I find myself in a whirl of conflicting emotions, unsure of how to really feel. Capturing ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’, for me poetry can re-focus the mind and lead me back to sanity.
W.H. Auden is a poet I have admired for as long as I can remember. He was a poet first found in anthologies from school and brought back to my attention by the now famous ‘Funeral Blues’ recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral. While that poem captures perfectly the feelings of loss and dislocation that the death of a loved one can bring, it is to another of his poems I frequently return when I am writing. ‘On This Island’ is, for me, a poem of sheer delight, a poem whose magical imagery, heady rhythmical lines and internal dancing assonance swim in my head like the great ocean it so accurately describes. The ‘leaping light’ that ‘for your delight discovers’ becomes the play of light on water so effortlessly that for a moment Auden and I are walking the beach together, standing silent for a sandy-toed moment to absorb the roar of the sea.
It is perhaps not an accident that the North-West coast of Ireland featured prominently in my childhood holidays, and that for me Auden’s coastline was the sands of Tullen Strand and Mullaghmore. His clearly delineated landscape became in my mind’s eye the fields and walls of Donegal, the plunge of the sea against rocks captured so well in ‘chalk wall falls to the foam…’
This poem is a poem of beauty, delight and reassurance. Daily the sea and land battle ‘the shingle scrambles after the suck-/-ing surf’, and yet the beauty of the world continues despite the strife; the sibilance here is gentle. The ships in the distance are as important and consequential as ‘floating seeds’. Perhaps we too can achieve the poise of that passing gull, and transcend for a moment the forces that threaten to overcome our delight in life and living.
On This Island
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
Here at a small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
-ing surf, and a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
– W.H. Auden