Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

Twenty-three selected poems online

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Stockton, Calif.










" Mr. Gibson has forged a poetic method which is
capable of managing, without violence, and with the
constant achievement of beauty, the everyday laborious
existence of those who are engaged in common trades.
Whatever the future will think of this poetic method,
the attempt, we are bold to assert, will be reckoned of
first-rate importance when the literary history of the
twentieth century comes to be written. This revelation
(it is nothing less) of the profound poetry in the lives of
factory hands, miners, navvies, fishermen, and casual
labourers in town slums and villages is bound to be
effective in the literature that is to come. That there is
poetry in these lives has often been vaguely affirmed
in general terms and without conviction ; but no one
before Mr. Gibson has set it down with exactitude of
truth and beauty." Lascelles Abcrcrombie in Daily News.

"What is the quality which Mr. Gibson's work
possesses ? What is it that gives to these formidably
direct studies of human labour, and to this bare,
undecorated writing, the peculiar significance which we
recognise as poetry ? One word is enough for the
answer, and it is, Form. The innate coherence in the
procession of outward things does, of course, constitute
something which, in aesthetic terms, may be called the
natural form of the world; and the elucidation of this,
or even some manner of perfecting it into a stricter
coherence than actuality affords, may effect a certain
species of artistic form ; it may roughly be called prose
form. But such form does not give the mind its highest
satisfaction. For that we require a kind of form that is
really quite independent of external actuality ; we require
the work of a formative impulse that can completely
dissolve the shows of things and all their real relation-
ships, and, while preserving these, yet recrystailize the
whole affair into a new indeed, into an ideal sort of
existence ; a sort of existence which, just because its
manner does triumphantly satisfy this need for form,
thereby seems charged with desirable significance. It
is the kind of form which occurs typically in music ; and
it is entirely on the creation of this kind of form that
Mr. Gibson relies, and, we think, relies with notable
success, for turning commonplace life (if any life is
commonplace) into the strange, disturbing life oi poetry."
The Times Literary Supplement, in a two-column
article on Mr. Gibson's poetry.

u The main thing about these poems is just that they
are extraordinary poems ; by means of their psychology,
no less and no more than by means oi their metre,
their rhyme, their intellectual form and their concrete
imagery, they pierce us with flashing understanding of
what the war is and means not merely what it is to
these individual pieces of ordinary human nature who
are injured by it and who yet dominate it, but, by evident
implication, what the war is in itself, as a grisly multi-
tudinous whole. It seems to us beyond question that
Mr. Gibson's ' Battle ' is one of the most remarkable
results the war has had in literature." The Nation (on





peasants, sailors, shopkeepers, mechanics, and the
like, is the material in which he shapes forth his vision
of life's significance. And it is plain that, in an age
which is apt to believe that poetry and reality are
antithetical terms, such uncompromising fusion of
the two must be work of the highest value. For
the significance Mr. Gibson reads into, or rather,
-.jiiite strictly, creates in, this every-day prosaic
life, is not that which propagandism too easily
provides, but the significance of simple, inevitable,
tragic morality. There are not many writers
living who can reach with such quiet effort the
secrets of human nature which lie hidden behind
habit and conduct and reasoning. The reader will
be disappointed if he reads Mr. Gibson's work in
the hope of exciting detail or curious form. What
he will find is a remarkable power of creating form
'as a whole, which perhaps too scrupulously avoids
the distraction of detail ; and a power of enclosing
in that form a wonderfully humane poetry."

Included in this selection are several poems
which relate to the great war, in which Mr. Gibson
served as a private soldier. These occupy a
distinctive place, especially in that they emphasise
the outrage inflicted by war upon that human
personality, to the value of which " Daily Bread "
and " Fires " drew attention. " Battle " and
" Friends " are indeed a " monument to the
wantonness of it all, to the cheapness of life in war,
the carelessness as to the individual, the disregard
alike of promise and performance, the elimination
of personality."*

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the
kindness of Mr. Elkin Mathews in allowing me to re-
print poems from " Daily Bread," " Fires,"
" Thoroughfares," " Borderlands," " Battle," and
" Friends " ; and to Messrs. Macmillan & Co. for
permission to include the poems from " Liveli-
hood " and " Whin." All these are copyright,
both in this country and in America 'in the latter
case by the Macmillan Company, of New York).

E. E. T.

* Times Literary Supplement, October
14th, 1915.

Twenty-Three Poems.


As one, at midnight, awakened by the call

Of golden plovers in their seaward flight,
Who lies and listens, as the clear notes fall

Through tingling quiet of the frosty night ;
Who lies and listens, till the wild notes fail ;

And then, in fancy, following the flock
Fares over slumbering hill and dreaming dale,

Until he hears the surf on reef and rock
Break, thundering ; and all sense of self is drowned

Within the mightier music of the deep,
And he no more recalls the piping sound

That startled him from dull, undreaming sleep :
So I, first waking from oblivion, heard,

With heart that kindled to the call of song,
The voice of young life, fluting like a bird,

And echoed that wild piping ; till, ere long,
Lured onward by that happy, singing flight,

I caught the stormy summons of the sea,
And dared the restless deeps that, day and night,

Surge with the life-song of humanity.


BY the lamplit stall I loitered, feasting my eyes
On colours ripe and rich for the heart's desire
Tomatoes, redder than Krakatoa's fire,
Oranges like old sunsets over Tyre,
And apples golden-green as the glades of Paradise.

And as I lingered, lost in divine delight,

My heart thanked God for the goodly gift of sight,

And all youth's lively senses keen and quick . . .

When suddenly, behind me in the night.

I heard the tapping of a blind man's stick.


STUCK in a bottle on the window-sill,

In the cold gaslight burning gaily red

Against the luminous blue of London night,

These flowers are mine ; while somewhere out of


In some black- throated alley's stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.
Broken with lust and drink, blear-eyed and illj
Her battered bonnet nodding on her head,
From a dark door she clutched my sleeve and said :
* 4 I've sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite . . .
Son, buy six-penn'orth ; and 'twill mean a bed."
So, blazing gaily red
Against the luminous deeps
Of starless London night,
They burn for my delight :
While somewhere, snug in bed.
A worn old woman sleeps.

And yet to-morrow will these blooms be dead

With all their lively beauty ; and to-morrow

May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow

Of the old body with the nodding head.

The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,

She'll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep ;

Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.


HE greets you with a smile from friendly eyes
But never speaks, nor rises from his bed :

Beneath the green night of the sea he lies,

The whole world's waters weighing on his head.

The empty wain made slowly o'er the sand ;

And he, with hands in pockets, by the side
Was trudging, deep in dream, the while he scanned

With blue, unseeing eyes the far-off tide :
When, stumbling in a hole, with startled neigh

His young horse reared ; and, snatching at the

He slipped : the wheels crushed on him as he lay ;

Then, tilting over him, the lumbering wain
Turned turtle as the plunging beast broke free,

And made for home : and pinioned and half- dead
He lay, and listened to the far-off sea ;

And seemed to hear it surging overhead
Already : though 'twas full an hour or more

Until high-tide, when Solway's shining flood
Should sweep the shallow firth from shore to shore.

He felt a salty tingle in his blood ;
And seemed to stifle, drowning. Then again,

He knew that he must lie a lingering while
Before the sea might close above his pain,

Although the advancing waves had scarce a mile
To travel, creeping nearer, inch by inch,

With little runs and sallies over the sand.
Cooped in the dark, he felt his body flinch

From each chill wave as it drew nearer hand.
He saw the froth of each oncoming crest,

And felt the tugging of the ebb and flow,
And waves already breaking over his breast,

Though still far-oil' they murmured, faint and low,
Yet creeping nearer, inch by inch ; and now

He felt the cold drench of the drowning wave,
And the salt cold of death on lips and brow ;

And sank, and sank . . . while still, as in a

In the close dark beneath the crushing cart,

He lay, and listened to the far-off sea.
Wave after wave was knocking at his heart.

And swishing, swishing, swishing ceaselessly
About the wain cool waves that never reached

His cracking lips, to slake his hell-hot thirst . . .
Shrill in his ear a startled barn-owl screeched . . .

He smelt the smell of oil -cake . . . when

there burst
Through the big barn's wide-open door, the sea

The whole sea sweeping on him with a roar . . .
He clutched a falling rafter, dizzily . . .

Then sank through drowning deeps, to rise no

Down, ever down, a hundred years he sank

Through cold green death, ten thousand fathom

His fiery lips deep draughts of cold sea drank

That filled his body with strange icy sleep,


Until he felt no longer that numb ache

The dead-weight lifted from his legs at last:

And yet he gazed with wondering eyes awake

Up the green glassy gloom through which he

passed :
And saw, far overhead, the keels of ships

Grow small and smaller, dwindling out of sight ;
And watched the bubbles rising from his lips ;

And silver salmon swimming in green night ;
And queer big, yellow skate with scarlet fins

And emerald eyes and fiery-flashing tails :
Enormous eels with purple-spotted skins ;

And mammoth unknown fish with sapphire
That bore down on him with red jaws agape,

Like yawning furnaces of blinding heat ;
And when it seemed to him as though escape

From those hell-mouths were hopeless, his bare

Touched bottom: and he lay down in his place

Among the dreamless legion of the drowned,
The calm of deeps unsounded on his face,

And calm within his heart ; while all around
Upon the midmost ocean's crystal floor

The naked bodies of dead seamen lay,
Dropped, sheer and clean, from hubbub, brawl and

To peace too deep for any tide to sway.

The little waves were lapping round the cart

Already, when they rescued him from death.
Life cannot touch the quiet of his heart

To joy or sorrow, as, with easy breath,
And smiling lips, upon his back he lies,

And never speaks, nor rises from his bed ;
Gazing through those green glooms with happy eyes,

While gold and sapphire fish swim overhead.


Tin-tinkle-tinkle-tinkle, went the bell,
As I pushed in ; and, once again, the smell
Of groceries, and news-sheets freshly-printed,
me wjien J IppKed &

To buy my evening-paper : but, to-night,

I wondered, not to see the well-known face,

With kind, brown eyes, and ever-friendly smile,

Behind the counter ; and to find the place

Deserted at this hour, and not a light

In either window. Waiting there a while,

Though wondering at what change these changes


I yet was grateful for the quiet gloom
Lit only by a gleam from the back-room,
And, here and there, a glint of glass and tin
So pleasant, after all the flare and din
And hubbub of the foundry : and my eyes,
Still tingling from the smoke, were glad to rest
Upon the ordered shelves, so neatly dressed
That, even in the dusk, they seemed to tell
No little of the hand that kept them clean,
And of the head that sorted things so well
That naught of waste or worry could be seen,
And kept all sweet with ever-fresh supplies.

And, as I thought upon her quiet way,

Wondering what could have got her, that she'd left

The shop, unlit, untended, and bereft

Of her kind presence, overhead I heard

A tiptoe creak, as though somebody stirred,

W T ith careful step, across the upper floor:

Then all was silent, till the back-room door

Swung open ; and her husband hurried in.

He feared he'd kept me, waiting in the dark,

And he was sorry : but his wife who served

The customers at night-time usually

While he made up the ledger after tea.

Was busy, when I ... Well, to tell the truth,

They were in trouble, for their little son

Had come in ill from school . . . the doctors said

Pneumonia . . . they'd been putting him to bed:

Perhaps, I'd heard them, moving overhead,

For boards would creak and creak, for all your care.

They hoped the best ; for he was young ; and youth

Could come through much ; and all that could be

Would be ... then he stood, listening, quite


As though he heard a footstep on the stair,
Though I heard nothing: but at my remark


About the fog and sleet, he turned,

And answered quickly, as there burned

In his brown eyes an eager flame :

The raw and damp were much to blame :

If but his son might breathe West-country air !

A certain Cornish village he could name

Was just the place ; if they could send him there,

And only for a week, he'd come back stronger . . .

And then, again, he listened : and I took

My paper, and went, afraid to keep him longer ;

And left him standing with that haggard look.

Next night, as I pushed in, there was no tinkle :
And. glancing up, I saw the bell was gone ;
Although, in either window, the gas shone ;
And I was greeted by a cheery twinkle
Of burnished tins and bottles from the shelves :
And now. 1 saw the father busy there
Behind the counter, cutting with a string
A bar of soap up for a customer,
With weary eyes, and jerky, harassed air,
As if his mind were hardly on the task :
And when 'twas done, and parcelled up for her.
And she had gone ; he turned to me, and said :
He thought that folks might cut their soap them-
selves ...

'Twas nothing much . . . but any little thing,
At such a time . . . And. having little doubt
The boy was worse, I did not like to ask ;
So picked my paper up, and hurried out.

And, all next day, amid the glare and clang

And clatter of the workshop, his words rang ;

And kept on ringing, in my head a-ring ;

But any little thing . . . at such a time . . .

And kept on chiming to the anvil's chime :

But any little thing ... at such a time . . .

And they were hissed and sputtered in the sizzle

Of water on hot iron : little thing .

At such a time : and, when I left, at last,

The smoke and steam ; and walked through the cold


The lumbering of the 'buses as they passed
Seemed full of it ; and to the passing feet,
The words kept patter, patter, with dull beat.

I almost feared to turn into their street,

Lest I should find the blinds down in the shop :


And, more than once. I'd half-a-mind to stop,

And buy my paper from the yelling boys,

Who darted all about with such a noise

That I half- wondered, in a foolish way,

How they could shriek so, knowing that the sound

Must worry children, lying ill in bed . . .

Then, thinking even they must earn their bread,

As I earned mine, and scarce as noisily !

I wandered on ; and very soon I found

I'd followed where my thoughts had been all day,

And stood before the shop, relieved to see

The gases burning, and no window-blind

Of blank foreboding. With an easier mind,

I entered slowly ; and was glad to find

The father by the counter, 'waiting me,

With paper ready and a cheery face.

Yes ! yes ! the boy was better . . . took the


Last night, just after I had left the place.
He feared that he'd been short and cross last

night . . .

But, when a little child was suffering.
It worried you . . . and any little thing,
At such a moment, made you cut up rough:
Though, now that he was going on all right .
Well, he'd have patience, now, to be polite !
And, soon as ever he was well enough,
The boy should go to Cornwall for a change
Should go to his own home ; for he, himself,
Was Cornish, born and bred, his wife as well:
And still his parents lived in the old place
A little place, as snug as snug could be ...
Where apple-blossom dipped into the sea . . .
Perhaps, to strangers' ears, that sounded strange
But not to any Cornishman who knew
How sea and land ran up into each other ;
And how, all round each wide, blue estuary,
The flowers were blooming to the water's edge:
You'd come on blue-bells like a sea of blue
But they would not be out for some while yet . . .
'Twould be primroses, blowing everywhere,
Primroses, and primroses, and primroses . ...
You'd never half know what primroses were,
Unless you'd seen them growing in the West ;
But, having seen, would never more forget.


Why, every bank, and every lane and hedge
Was just one blaze of yellow ; and the smell,
When the sun shone upon them, after wet . .
And his eyes sparkled, as he turned to sell
A penny loaf and half-an-ounce of tea
To a poor child, who waited patiently,
With hacking cough that tore her hollow chest:
And, as she went out, clutching tight the change,
He muttered to himself: It's strange, it's strang<
That little ones should suffer so ... The ligh
Had left his eyes : but, when he turned to me,
I saw a flame leap in them, hot and bright.
I'd like to take them all, he said, to-night !

And. in the workshop, all through the next day,

The anvils had another tune to play . . .

Primroses, and primroses, and primroses :

The bellows puffing out : It's strange, it's strange

That little ones should suffer so ...

And now, my hammer, at a blow :

I'd like to take them all, to-night !

And, in the clouds of steam, and white-hot glow,

I seemed to see primroses everywhere,

Primroses, and primroses, and primroses.

And, each night after that, I heard the boy

Was mending quickly ; and would soon be well :

Till one night I was startled by the bell :

Tin-tinkle-tinkle-tinkle, loud and clear ;

And tried to hush it, lest the lad should hear.

But, when the father saw me clutch the thing,

He said, the boy had missed it yesterday ;

And wondered why he could not hear it ring ;

And wanted it ; and had to have his way.

And then, with brown eyes burning with deep joy,

He told me, that his son was going West

Was going home . . . the doctor thought,

next week,

He'd be quite well enough : the way was long ;
But trains were quick ; and he would soon be there :
And on the journey he'd have every care,
His mother being with him ... it was best,
That she should go : for he would find it strange,
The little chap, at first . . . she needed

change . . .

And, when they'd had a whiff of Western air !
'Twould cost a deal ; and there was naught to spare :

But, what was money, if you hadn't health i
And, what more could you buy, if you'd the

wealth . . .

Yes ! 'twould be lonely for himself, and rough ;
Though, on the whole, he'd manage well enough:
He'd have a lot to do : and there was naught
Like work to keep folk cheerful : when the hand
Was busy, you had little time for thought ;
And thinking was the mischief . . . and 'twas


To know that they'd be happy. Then the bell
Went tinkle-tinkle ; and he turned to sell.

One night he greeted me with face that shone,
Although the eyes were wistful ; they were gone
Had gone this morning, he was glad to say :
And, though 'twas sore work, setting them away,
Still, 'twas the best for them . . . and they

would be

Already in the cottage by the sea . . .
He spoke no more of them ; but turned his head ;
And said he wondered if the price of bread
And, as I went again into the night,
I saw his eyes were glistening in the light.

And, two nights after that, he'd got a letter:
And all was well : the boy was keeping better ;
And was as happy as a child could be,
All day with the primroses and the sea,
And pigs ! Of all the wonders of the West,
His mother wrote, he liked the pigs the best.
And now the father laughed until the tears
Were in his eyes, and chuckled : Aye ! he knew
Had he not been a boy there once, himself ?
He'd liked pigs, too, when he was his son's years.
And then, he reached a half-loaf from the shelf ;
And twisted up a farthing's worth of tea,
And farthing's worth of sugar, for the child,
The same poor child who waited patiently,
Still shaken by a hacking, racking cough.

And, all next day, the anvils rang with jigs :

The bellows roared and rumbled with loud laughter,

Until it seemed the workshop had gone wild,

And it would echo, echo, ever after

The tune the hammers tinkled on and off,

A silly tune of primroses and pigs


Of all the wonders of the West

He liked the pigs, he liked the pigs the best !

Next night, as I went in, I caught

A strange, fresh smell. The postman had just


A precious box from Cornwall, and the shop
Was lit with primroses ; that lay atop
A Cornish pasty, and a pot of cream :
And. as. with gentle hands, the father lifted
The flowers his little son had plucked for him,
He stood a moment in a far-off dream,
As though in glad remembrances he drifted
On Western seas : and, as his eyes grew dim,
He stooped, and buried them in deep, sweet bloom :
Till, hearing, once again, the poor child's cough,
He served her hurriedly, and sent her off,
Quite happily, with thin hands filled with flowers.
And, as I followed to the street, the gloom
Was starred with primroses ; and many hours
The strange, shy flickering surprise
Of that child's keen, enchanted eyes
Lit up my heart, and brightened my dull room.

Then, many nights the foundry kept me late

With overtime ; and I was much too tired

To go round by the shop ; but made for bed

As straight as I could go : until one night

We'd left off earlier, though 'twas after eight,

I thought I'd like some news about the boy.

I found the shop untended ; and the bell

Tin-tinkle-tinkle-tinkled all in vain.

And then I saw, through the half-curtained pane,

The back-room was a very blaze of joy :

And knew the mother and son had come safe back.

And, as I slipped away, now all was well,

I heard the boy shriek out, in shrill delight :

" And, father, all the little pigs were black ! "


As I was walking with my dear, my dear come back

at last,
The shadow of the Ragged Stone fell on us as we

passed :

And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged

I'll not be walking with my dear next year, nor yet

And we're to wed come Michaelmas, my lovely dear

and I ;
And we're to have a little house, and do not want

to die.
But all the folk are fighting in the lands acros? the

Because the King and counsellors went mad in

Because the King and counsellors went mad, my

love and I
May never have a little house before we come to die.

And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged

I'll not be walking with my dear next year, nor

yet alone.


BY Raven Burn and Carlin Tooth,
She came at last to Hartshorn Pike ;

Then, turning east to Haggie Knowe,
She rested in a rushy syke

She rested in a rushy syke

And laid her baby in the fern ;

And low and sad the song she sang
Beside the tumbling burn.

" Lie still, my sorrow, in the fern
For no man ever spoke the truth,

If he were lying when we came
That day^by Carlin Tooth.

" From Raven Burn to Carlin Tooth
He swore that he'd be true to me

And sure he's lying dead in France,

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Online LibraryWilfrid Wilson GibsonTwenty-three selected poems → online text (page 1 of 4)