Unforgettable poets – MacCaig and Hardy

Norman MacCaig (1910-96) was a Scottish writer, whose poetry, in modern English, is known for its humour, simplicity of language and enormous popularity.

MacCaig studied classics at the University of Edinburgh and worked for many years as a primary school teacher. For most of his life, he divided his time between Edinburgh and Assynt in the north-west Highlands, whose landscape is a recurring theme of his poetry. “Stars and Planets” is from his 1977 collection titled Trees of Strings.

“Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.

They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
And migrating in mathematical tribes over
The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.

It’s hard to think that the earth is one-
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
Attended only by the loveless moon.”

The English novelist and poetThomas Hardy (1840-1928) saw himself as primarily a poet who wrote books mainly for financial gain. He was and continues to be highly regarded for his novels, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native and Far from the Madding Crowd. Most of his fictional works, initially published as serials in magazines, were set in the semi-fictional land of Wessex (based on the Dorchester region where he grew up) and depicted tragic characters struggling with their passions and social circumstances. “Afterwards” was first published as the final poem in Moments of Vision (1917), when Hardy was 77.

“When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things’?”

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