Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poems for the New Year

It has been a while since I did a set of poems. New Years Eve is a good enough excuse.

Here are four on the subject that caught my fancy. I present them in chronological order.

Blake described the series as representing two contrary states of the soul. However, despite the seeming naivety of the “Innocence” poems, they often have dark undercurrents, while the more jaded “Experience” poems sometimes show the naivety of pessimism as well.

This particular poem is from the “Innocence” poems, and treats the “New Year” as occurring where it has in most ancient societies: in Spring. It is one of the truly innocent and optimistic of the set, and utilizes Blake’s preferred images of innocence: birds, sheep, and children. He also uses an interesting form. The first eight lines of each stanza are a mere three syllables each. The concluding line is pentameter - two dactyls followed by three iambs.  


Sound the flute!
Now it’s mute.
Birds delight
Day and night.
In the dale,
Lark in the sky,
Merrily, merrily to welcome in the year.

Little boy
Full of joy,
Little girl
Sweet and small.
Cock does crow,
So do you.
Merry voice,
Infant noise,
Merrily, merrily to welcome in the year.

Little lamb
Here I am
Come and lick
My white neck.
Let me pull
Your soft wool.
Let me kiss
Your soft face,
Merrily, merrily we welcome in the year. 

Christina Rossetti also uses the imagery of Spring in her set of three short poems entitled “Old and New Year Ditties,” from Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). (You can read my thoughts on the collection here.) However, she writes of Spring as transient, a symbol not so much of new life but of the brevity of life and the quick passage of time. “Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day…” Rossetti wrote a great deal of devotional poetry, and these are somewhat in that vein. Her own life was difficult, as she battled ill health and was unlucky in love. To anyone who has experienced sorrow or hardship, these poems capture a bit of that feeling. The bittersweet nature of time and love, which never stays the same, no matter how much we want it to. The certain knowledge that life is too short for us to do and experience all we wish. And above it all, the desire for the Divine. 

Old and New Year Ditties

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

New Year coming on apace
What have you to give me?
Bring you scathe, or bring you grace,
Face me with an honest face;
You shall not deceive me:
Be it good or ill, be it what you will,
It needs shall help me on my road,
My rugged way to heaven, please God.


Watch with me, men, women, and children dear,
You whom I love, for whom I hope and fear,
Watch with me this last vigil of the year.
Some hug their business, some their pleasure-scheme;
Some seize the vacant hour to sleep or dream;
Heart locked in heart some kneel and watch apart.

Watch with me blessèd spirits, who delight
All through the holy night to walk in white,
Or take your ease after the long-drawn fight.
I know not if they watch with me: I know
They count this eve of resurrection slow,
And cry, “How long?” with urgent utterance strong.

Watch with me Jesus, in my loneliness:
Though others say me nay, yet say Thou yes;
Though others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.
Yea, Thou dost stop with me this vigil night;
To-night of pain, to-morrow of delight:
          I, Love, am Thine; Thou, Lord my God, art mine.


Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play;
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Though I tarry wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

Thomas Hardy saw an epic change in the world during his long life. Born solidly in the Victorian Era, he lived through World War One to see the Roaring Twenties. “At the Entering of the New Year” was written in 1918, and has a simple note at the bottom: “December 31. During the War.” Presumably, Hardy intended that the poem be read in that light, as a representation not only of the difference between youth and age, but also of the progress of the war from youthful ambition to the devastation of a generation. The first part captures this exuberance: the rousing party that can be heard from far away. The second part echoes Rossetti with its picture of the incoming year representing an unwanted visitor, the passage of time that is inevitable but nonetheless unwelcome. 

At the Entering of the New Year

          (OLD STYLE)

Our songs went up and out the chimney,
And roused the home-gone husbandmen;
Our allemands, our heys, poussettings,
Our hands-across and back again,
Sent rhythmic throbbings through the casements
        On to the white highway,
Where nighted farers paused and muttered,
        "Keep it up well, do they!"

The contrabasso's measured booming
Sped at each bar to the parish bounds,
To shepherds at their midnight lambings,
To stealthy poachers on their rounds;
And everybody caught full duly
        The notes of our delight,
As Time unrobed the Youth of Promise
        Hailed by our sanguine sight.

          (NEW STYLE)

We stand in the dusk of a pine-tree limb,
As if to give ear to the muffled peal,
Brought or withheld at the breeze's whim;
But our truest heed is to words that steal
From the mantled ghost that looms in the gray,
And seems, so far as our sense can see,
To feature bereaved Humanity,
As it sighs to the imminent year its say:—

"O stay without, O stay without,
Calm comely Youth, untasked, untired;
Though stars irradiate thee about
Thy entrance here is undesired.
Open the gate not, mystic one;
        Must we avow what we would close confine?
         With thee, good friend, we would have converse none,
Albeit the fault may not be thine."

The history of the Twentieth Century is some ways one of unbelievably bloody war. From the trenches of World War One spoken of by Hardy, to the final fall of Communism. U2 was founded amidst the seemingly endless strife in Ireland, and many of their songs had their genesis in that environment.

However, “New Years Day,” from their album, War, is about the struggle of the Polish Solidarity movement that would eventually free Poland from the Soviets. This song came out in 1983, but it wouldn’t be until six years later that semi-free elections would be held in Poland, with Lech Wałęsa becoming the first non-communist president of Poland since the Soviet takeover.

U2’s lyrics are anything but naive, but they are hopeful. “Nothing changes” on New Year’s Day - but perhaps it might. And again, we see what may well be a longing for the Divine. Perhaps two can be one, and Love can triumph in the end.

U2 New Years Day

All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true it's true...
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

I...I will begin again
I...I will begin again

Maybe the time is right
Oh...maybe tonight...

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

And so we're told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes
On New Year's Day

So, happy new year, everyone, whether you feel excitement, hope, sorrow, or dread. May Love triumph over Time, when all is said and done. 

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