Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?
It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.
So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.
DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN
One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.
And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.
I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.
The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?
But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.
The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?
And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.
I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.
It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).
I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe. “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).
In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.
Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.
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THE SHADOWED WAY
I’ve been away ten thousand nights
But now, you see, I’m back.
You lived with a thousand fears
I carry in my sack.
You saw the wise magician fall
Emptied out by worm
And the turning of the tides
Come to a full term.
You heard the knocking in the night
No shadows cast by moon;
Waited for the morning light
To copy out the rune.
You saw the singer come by sea
With seven ships and gold
Felt the ageing of the tree
And the hand grown old.
The snows will cover all your songs
The dark will kill the flower
The bud will break, with new-born wrongs
And an unquiet hour.
Over the snow the song is sung
And dark gives birth to day;
Remember how the light is sprung
From the shadowed way.
There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.
The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).
I think that makes sense…
Copyright Simon Banks 2013