Today is National Poetry Day, so (just like last year) I decided to share a poem with you. As this year’s theme is Remember, I’ve gone for one of the first poems I learned by heart as a child – and still remember with pleasure…
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
John Masefield (1878-1967) was Poet Laureate for thirty seven years between 1930 and 1967, and is also well-known for his classic childrens’ books The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights – amongst a huge amount of other writings over his long life, both prose and poetry.
I was introduced to ‘Cargoes’ as a precocious poetry-reading child by my late mother and immediately fell in love with the tongue-twisting phrases and vivid, intriguing imagery. This is a poem to be learned, read aloud and remembered…
The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
Yes, this silly little ditty (one of the first poems I learned by heart as a child) is apparently* by the very same Christopher Isherwood who wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1938) – the novels that were later adapted into the play I Am A Camera (1951) and the 1966 stage musical and cult 1972 film Cabaret. I was irresistably reminded of Isherwood’s nonsense poem when I encountered this beautiful cormorant stretching out his wings in the July sunshine as I walked by the Thames in Richmond last week. Incidentally, you might like to know that cormorants and shags (no sniggering at the back there!) are, although of the same avian family, two totally different types of bird – and there were no bears (with or without buns) to be seen anywhere, rather disappointingly…
*There is some debate over whether the poem is actually by Isherwood at all, but it is certainly widely attributed to him on most poetry websites and in pre-internet poetry collections (of the physical book kind) dating back over a number of decades that I have either personally seen or own.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd 1802
Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
William’s sister Dorothy (1771-1855) was also a writer, and she kept a journal. It is this entry, recording a journey taken by the siblings through an early-morning London in July 1802, which is said to have inspired him to write this sonnet:
… we left London on Saturday morning at ½ past 5 or 6, the 31st July (I have forgot which) we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.