May 23, 2017

Overheard on a Saltmarsh

        We’ve had a long run of relief prints and now it’s definitely time for a fantasy poem.  This is one I encountered as a child that really caught my imagination.  The title Overheard on a Saltmarsh sets the scene and tells us all that we know of context.  That’s part of the fun of the poem: it isn’t a whole story; it’s just a rare passing glimpse of that other world that most of us never see or hear at all.
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin.  Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
Give them me.  Give them me.

Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.
I will howl in a deep lagoon
For your green glass beads.  I love them so.
Give them me.  Give them.

        Why is the goblin so entranced by the beads?  How did a nymph steal beads from the moon?  Did the anonymous narrator see the beads?  Or the nymph or goblin?  Or only hear the voices at dusk, hidden among the grass?  What will happen next?  
        This was first published in 1920 by the poet Harold Monro, who is hardly a household name these days, but who was apparently an influential editor and a mentor to many other poets.  According to one literary historian, “Perhaps no one did more for the advancement of twentieth-century poetry.”  Be that as it may, this particular poem seems magical to me precisely because of its seeming modernity and straightforwardness.  The characters aren’t discussing some mythical artifact of precious gems, a crown or a magical sword.  They don’t speak “ye olde” language.  It’s a simple necklace of green glass beads - and yet to them it is magical, and they are magical to us, and the scene is a magical glimpse into a world that is strange, mysterious, other, and yet exists just beside our own everyday paths.  You never know - you might encounter it at any time.

[Picture: Cranes in the Mist, color woodblock print by Andrea Rich, 2008 (Image from Andrea Rich Woodcuts);
Moon at Dawn, color woodcut by Micah Schwaberow, 2016 (Image from Annex Galleries).]
Quotation by Dominic Hibberd from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

"Moon at Dawn" is such a beautiful woodcut.