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Reflections on Anonymity 1.


33 SONGS AND 3 QUOTATIONS (ca. 1250 / 2022) –

With Accompanying Notes

A series in three parts from Then and Now – Opus 1.

(illustration by Alan Dixon)

“Art can proceed only from a purely anonymous centre.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letter to ‘R.S.’” (22 November, 1920)

“Because I need a passionate syntax for passionate subject-matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language… All that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice or salt… If I wrote of personal love or sorrow in free verse or in any rhythm that left it unchanged amid all its accidence, I would be full of self-contempt because of my egotism and indiscretion, and foresee the boredom of my reader. I must choose a traditional stanza, even what I alter must seem traditional… Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing.”
W.B. Yeats, A General Introduction to My Work (1937)

“Go, song, surely thou mayest
Whither it please thee
For so art thou ornate that thy reasons
Shall be praised from thy understanders,
With others hast thou no will to make company.”
Ezra Pound,‘Canto XXXVI’


Sing, cuckoo, sing,
Merrily sing cuckoo!

Sing now spring is coming in,
Sing loudly now cuckoo!

Trees are blowing, leas growing,
Green is the woodland now.

Sing, cuckoo, sing,
Now sing, cuckoo, cuckoo!

Loudly ewes bleat for their lambs –
Cows, for calves, moo,

Bucks are rutting, bullocks snorting,
Merrily sing cuckoo!

Sing so well, cuckoo:

Mad bird, don’t caw or coo,
Just cuckoo cuckoo! cuckoo.


Birds flit through thrashing trees,
Fish flash through the dark flood.
And I? go nowhere. Mad,
I burn and then I freeze
For the best of flesh – bone – blood.


Mérry life ís while summer lasts
With birds in song.
Now, though, autumn’s windy blasts
Are cold and strong.
Black is the night, alas! and long,
When hé who’s been wronged
Suffers and mourns and fasts.


When nightingales sing
The woods grow green:
Grass, leaves and blossom spring,
And mý poor heart has been
Skewered in April
As by a spear so keen
I bleed all night, all day,
Suffering súch sharp pain,

Dear love, that if this song
Should ever reach your ear,
Listen: I’ve loved so much, so long,
That Í can love no more:
Love-sick, I too grow green!
But a kiss alone from your
Sweet mouth might shut my mouth –
At best, effect a cure.


The shadowy air of April
Is cold and dead

The red and gold is still
In your hair.

But never still the same
Young flame in your face:

Sap-like, flame will still
Flare – shadows run –

And your head still turn – swing
Your hair in the sun,

Till it burn sun-red,

The shadowy air of April
Is cold and dead
Still –

And the spring is still
In your tread.


I dreamt the day was dawning
And you and I must part
And each go home. The morning
Got off to a bad start.

In my dream you’d slept, a white-gowned queen,
In a garden of snow-white roses – green
With hedges, lawns, sweet-scented flowers –
And there I’d sat for hours and hours
Until you woke and plucked a rose:

You’d dreamt the day was dawning
And you and I must part
And each go home. The morning
Got off to a sad start.

In your dream was another garden, green
With trees and hedges. A white-gowned queen,
You’d slept among sweet-scented flowers.
And there I’d sat for hours and hours –
Until you woke and plucked a rose.

– I dreamt the day was dawning
And you and I must part
And each go home…
But the morning
Woke us at last, sweetheart.

Which made a better start.


Twigs bud in May:
Love-sick, I hardly sleep
By night or day.

To drive my cares away
And greet the spring,
I walked in the forest yesterday
And heard one sing:
“May the clod cling
To him! And may his thing
Wither away!”

When I heard these merry words repeated,
I hurried there,
And found her in an orchard, seated
With flowers in her hair
Under a pear:
“My girl, what’s your sweet song about?”
With a pretty pout,

She sang in her merry way
Words pert and few:
“My lover promised me
That he’d be true,
But now he has a new
Mistress. I’ll make him rue
The day today!”


A rich old miller’s only daughter
Was wooed by rich young men:
When her father asked her, Which? she replied
She’d marry no one.

Money and youth were nothing: only
A mouth of solid gold,
She declared, would kiss her mouth. All flesh
Was mortal mould.

A sly magician heard of this,
Who lay on the village green.
He conjured from an old horse-bone
A horse for a queen.

He pricked and pranced the horse outside
Her father’s gates on the grass,
Like an angel bearing gifts of gold.
A pricker he was.

Her father’s servants showed this prince
Or prancer into the hall.
They tried to lock his magic horse
In a wooden stall.

The summer evening passed, night fell.
To bed they went, these two.
Sweetly the night passed. Sky-larks sang –
Also the cuckoo.

– Where are you all, my women and men?
 Why don’t you come to me,
And open the windows of my tower,
 So I can see?

When they opened the windows of her tower
She saw neither duke nor earl.
The magician took the feeble form
Of a blear-eyed churl.

Alas! she said. Her servants led him
To a hanging tree on a hill.
As he dropped he leered, and took the form
Of a sack of meal.

The dust fell in her eyes. And now
She’s blear-eyed, too… Beguiled
By gold-lust, any girl might end
Like this rich man’s child.


– My girl, your lovely rose-red mouth
Will soon be pale. No boring wife,
With boys you’ve danced away your youth:
With me you’ll dance away your life…


“Help, help! Though I don’t want to die,
Life’s somehow not much fun any more.
Even the Dance of Death’s a bore,
Forget it. And so, Goodbye, goodbye…


– “My dear, when your husband’s away from home,
Can I be so bold
And knock at your bedroom window
When nights are long and cold?
And will you open your window
When nights are cold and wet,
And let me lie in your husband’s place?
Will you do that?”

– “Young man, if you’ll be so kind,
When my husband’s away from home,
As to knock at my bedroom window,
When I am all alone,
And lie in my husband’s place,
I’ll tell you what:
He lies there five whole times in a night.
Will you do that?”


– Where are you off to now, my lad?
I’ll show you a path which leads elsewhere,
To a private place. Though I’m afraid
Lots of laddish lovers lie there…


“Wining and dining and having it off in
Bordellos run by fat madames,
My life was nothing but fun and games…
I never dreamt I’d fill a coffin…”


Most of the sections in Thirty-Three Songs 1-3 are loosely based on anonymous poems to be found in: R.T. Davies, Medieval English Lyrics (1963), Totentanz der Stadt Basel (ca. 1440), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (ed.), Allerleirauh (1961) – an outstanding anthology of traditional German children’s rhymes – and James Barke & Sydney Goodsir Smith (eds.), The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1964), which consists for the most part of anonymous folksongs collected but not printed by Robert Burns (cf. note on I.x, “My dear, when your husband’s away from home”). Further sections (in 2. and 3.) are translations of poems by Heine and Goethe.

“a purely anonymous centre”:

For Rilke, as for Yeats, this included not only “passionate subject-matter” but other areas of human experience which “go beyond the individual”, as he put it in another letter, transcending everyday rationality, among other things… Rilke plays an important role in Then and Now, particularly in Opus 3. In his letter to ‘R.S.’, who had sent him some MSS, emphasizing the fact that he was blind, Rilke acknowledges that any such “great decisive misfortune” must become the centre of the sufferer’s “rearranged consciousness”. Once this is so, however, one’s aim as an artist “should be directed towards enduring this central misfortune more and more without any special name…, preparing it for the freedom of becoming, at certain moments, not misfortune alone but dispensation, privilege.” Rilke implies, in other words, that the individual author or artist is free to achieve ‘anonymity’. An experienced traveller who spent time in several European countries, Rilke felt particularly attuned to the culture of Spain, for example, and it is perhaps no accident that his and Yeats’s Spanish contemporary, Miró, also remarked: “Great artistic periods have always been dominated by anonymity. It is becoming more and more necessary today. At the same time, however, one also needs a totally individual gesture. Why? Because a deeply experienced individual gesture is anonymous, it opens the door to universality” (Walter Erben, Miró, pp.232, 236). In the same interview (in 1959), he said: “In order to become truly human, we must rid ourselves of our false ego. This meant that I had to stop being Miró… In other words, one has to aim at anonymity.”

“Talk to me of originality, etc.”:

This whole passage is an evident counter-blast to Ezra Pound’s catch-phrase “Make it New”. However, Pound (whom Yeats singles out as writing differently from himself) was very capable of using “traditional metres which have developed with the language” (above all, in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley), when it suited his project. Moreover, free verse is, obviously, a meaningful and in the meantime venerable form in itself: i.e. the tradition, being by far the greater entity, has subsumed it with no great difficulty – in part, it seems clear, because “traditional metres” are far from being the only form of poetic “salt”… On the other hand, the sheer quality of Yeats’s poetry effectively quashes, for example, the idea (of which Pound was not entirely innocent) that free verse, like ‘modern art’, represents some sort of progress beyond more traditional verse or art. Among visual artists, Yeats’s contemporary Picasso took the (surprisingly?) similar view that he painted in the same way as any other painter had painted: “Whenever I had something to say, I said it in the way which seemed right to me. Differing motifs demand different methods. This does not presuppose evolution or progress, but a correspondence or agreement between the idea one wants to express and the means of expression which is inseparable from it” (90 Zeichnungen und farbige Arbeiten, Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1971; p. 24, my translation).

Even so, the idea of aesthetic progress is still current in some (particularly American or Americanized) circles – sometimes without further consideration, sometimes because “the fashion is the fashion”, though “nothing to a man”, as two drunken courtiers try to explain to each other in Much Ado About Nothing, III: iii… Also still current (if more European) is the – understandable but simplistic – one-hundred-year-old viewpoint à la Dada that any means of expression developed within our “botched civilization” (as Pound justifiably called it) is no longer valid because ‘tainted’ by the worldwide catastrophes which, above all in the twentieth century, have resulted. As a matter of fact, though, this viewpoint (which caused Mirò to turn against figurative painting, for instance) implies that one could – and even should – not only write or paint but live in some way radically against or outside of or over and above the civilization into which we have been born: tasks beyond practically all of us, even if one were surer than it is possible to be that minds would thereby be changed. To change reality we must first of all change how we think about, relate to, act on, and thus help create it. Otherwise – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

“Go, song, etc.”:

The congedo or ‘envoi’ of Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone, “Donna mi priegha” (ca. 1290), as translated by Ezra Pound in Canto XXXVI.

Cavalcanti’s famously difficult, and in places obscure, late thirteenth century poem was in effect a challenge to his friend Dante’s view of love as embodied (however platonically) in Beatrice… Being greatly susceptible to the power of love, like all sensitive souls, Cavalcanti is acutely aware as well of its inherent dangers and limitations: it is not virtú, though of that vein – no matter how beautiful, it is felt, not thought, and it maintains that affective intention is reason’s equal. And so,

Poor in discernment, being thus vice’s friend,
Often his power meets with death in the end.

Pound’s use of translation here as a form of quotation (of which there are, of course, others) is a Modernist device which I have taken over in various ways throughout Then and Now – in part with the intention of creating an effect, at least, of anonymity…

Sing, cuckoo, sing, etc.:

A (winter) version of Sing! cuccoo nu was included by Pound – under the title of “Ancient Music” – in Lustra (1916).

In ABC of Reading (p.14), Pound wrote of his conviction “that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music”. A late Romantic in many respects (and, as R.T. Davies remarked, the anonymous lyrics in his anthology have tended to be underrated by “the emphasis put since the romantic movement on originality or spontaneity in poetry and on the personality of the poet”), Pound was nevertheless always sensitive to what he called melopoeia – or the qualities of sound and rhythm in poetry – and celebrated medieval and Renaissance lyricism for this reason.

Both he and Eliot were admirers of Dante, for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Pound spoke of “the tremendous music of the Commedia”, one of Eliot’s main interests in the medieval was, of course, religious – and there are many (popular) religious lyrics in Davies’s book, which Faber published. The subject-matter of most of its secular lyrics was also the subject-matter, as it happens, of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes:

SWEENEY: Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.
DORIS: I’d be bored.
—”Fragment of an Agon”, 1947.

The difference, however, is that the medieval lyrics revel – often humorously and/or light-heartedly – in endless variations on these themes, whereas they were (at any rate until Four Quartets) too inherently anonymous, perhaps, and too corporeal, for Eliot’s Romantic/Puritan individualism not to find boring or distasteful on the one hand and (fascinatingly) disgusting on the other.

My dear, when your husband’s away from home:

The first of four poems in the sequence based on Scottish folksongs from The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1800). As well as writing his own poetry, Robert Burns collected several hundred anonymous folksongs during his work as a farmer and while travelling around Scotland as an exciseman. Many of these he rewrote as songs of his own (including some of his most famous) by improving their style, adding or removing stanzas, and in some cases toning down their bawdiness so as to accord with the publishing standards of his day. Some of the songs (presumably also improved by himself) which he found unfit for general circulation were still in a notebook when he died in 1796. This notebook seems to have been lost. However, a version of it, entitled The Merry Muses of Caledonia, was published anonymously for an Edinburgh convivial club, the Crochallan Fencibles, of which Burns had been a member. A single copy survives, and has provided a basis for modern editions.

W.D. JACKSON’s five books and two pamphlets are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work.  His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018)was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019.  A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’).  Shoestring has published a new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon). The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.

ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s.  Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013.  An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.

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