Poetry Review: “October” by Hillaire Belloc

BellocWhen I lived in Chicago I would occasionally go to a little bar to read and study over a pint of Guinness… and to watch Cubs games in the spring and fall. One of the waitresses, who was young and pretty and very much in love with a med student at the University of Chicago, was an on-again off-again French Literature student. Seeing me reading Yeats one day she said, “You should read Belloc. He makes English beautiful… and fun. Everybody in Chicago reads too much Irish Literature. Irish poetry is depressing, just like Irish music.”

Belloc was an unrepentant Roman Catholic with a prophetic eye. From the Wikipedia article on Belloc, comes this quote, which I have found re-quoted several places over the last few years, by various writers:

The story must not be neglected by any modern, who may think in error that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved—to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is intact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril, and who can be confident in the continued skill, let alone the continued obedience, of those who make and work our machines? … There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine… We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice… Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline; and in the contrast between [our religious chaos and Islam’s] religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world lies our peril. ~ Hillaire Belloc

“October” is fine example of what Belloc in his poetry does best. It is certainly a fine poem for an October day.


Look, how those steep woods on the mountain’s face
Burn, burn against the sunset; now the cold
Invades our very noon: the year’s grown old,
Mornings are dark, and evenings come apace.
The vines below have lost their purple grace,
And in Forreze the white wrack backward rolled,
Hangs to the hills tempestuous, fold on fold,
And moaning gusts make desolate all the place.

Mine host the month, at thy good hostelry,
Tired limbs I’ll stretch and steaming beast I’ll tether;
Pile on great logs with Gascon hand and free,
And pour the Gascon stuff that laughs at weather;
Swell your tough lungs, north wind, no whit care we,
Singing old songs and drinking wine together.


Poetry Review: “Aware” by Denise Levertov

Pay Attention (photo by m.a.h. hinton)
Pay Attention (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

As a poet, Denise Levertov’s work consistently reflects her interests in politics and religion. Her style shows her willingness to push boundaries, to demand space in literature for things of “ultimate concern.” It is this that I have always most admired about her…  and would most like to emulate.

In her early career, she was very influenced by William Carlos Williams. I fancy at times that I can see that influence… not so much in theme and style as in a certain core sensibility, a way of seeing things.

Most of all what shines through in her poetry is her essential “Catholicness” (she converted to Roman Catholicism late in her life). By that I mean, her way of seeing the world is above all sacramental.

I did not begin reading Levertov seriously until I was in my late thirties, probably around the time of her death. It was a Donald Hall essay, I think, that led me to look again at her poetry. I wish I would have been reading her more seriously earlier.

“Aware” is not my favorite Levertov poem… but probably since I have been thinking of mindfulness of late, it was the first one that came to my mind this morning flipping through a volume of her poems. It shows well, I think, the “sacramentalness” of her work and her wonderful command of language.


When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

Poetry Review: “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

nev-trout-stampHopkins is, of course, Roman Catholic… the most Roman Catholic of all English poets. His art and vision is rooted in his theology, his language in the singularity of his position as outsider. Like American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, being the ultimate “outsider” leads Hopkins to heights of artistic and intellectual uniqueness.

In the English speaking world (with the obvious exception of “mad Ireland”) there is, of course, no greater outsideness than being a practicing Roman Catholic. Foibles and intellectual inconsistencies of a thousand kinds can be easily forgiven and overlooked for the most part in the ivory towers and coffee shops of American and English intellectualism, with the exception of this one. Roman Catholicism remains anathema… the unpardonable intellectual and cultural sin.

Even if Hopkins were not such a unique and wonderful poet, I would love him for his status as ultimate outsider, just as I love O’Connor.

I have not posted a poetry review for awhile. A Hopkins poem seems like just the thing.


Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.