When I was about twelve years old, my mother had the idea of making an anthology of science fiction poetry.

I don’t suppose she knew how such a book could actually be published, but that didn’t stop her (and me) starting to look for worthy poems to go into the book.

b2ap3_thumbnail_GOLLANCZ.JPGAnd we did find a good number, bit by bit, in unexpected places. Or we found poems we would allow to qualify. At the time, my father read every scrap of science fiction prose from our local library, all the Gollancz series in with shiny yellow covers, among others, so there was a ready influence at hand.

I wrote a poem for this anthology myself. Mum wrote one too. But mainly the poems were by real poets. I wish I could remember what all of them were, because we spent much time talking about and compiling the set. I think we admitted John Smith’s ‘A True Story’, though it is more fantasy than science and begins:

My eldest uncle had an extraordinary habit
Of turning young girls into birds;
He kept them in exquisitely jewelled cages.
How he did it I could not tell,
But only that they were inexplicably beautiful.

I still love this poem and would quote the lot, were I not working towards another contender, namely John Masefield, whose star (apart from Sea Fever, Cargoes and Tewkesbury Road) has sunk somewhat low these days, though not as far as John Smith’s (which just goes to show that being the author of more than seven collections of poetry, one a PBS choice, and at least one other a recommendation, is no guarantee of poetic immortality).

You may not think of Masefield as a science fiction man, but he has at least one poem that qualifies. It calls on the idea of space as a great sea, through which one might sail, and of course sailing was something the poet knew about. To this day, ‘I could not sleep for thinking of the sky’ is, for me, beautiful and haunting, though rarely included in anthologies. The last line, in particular, where the iambic rhythm changes, is a corker.

My mother, at the age of 91, has now departed on her final voyage. I have another close and dearly valued friend about to follow. For them both, here is John Masefield’s science fiction sonnet, which is the twelfth poem in Lollingdon Downs, first published in 1917—the year Edward Thomas died. You can hear Brian Blessed reading it on Youtube, bless him, but I don’t recommend it. The language of the poem is already theatrical. It needs to be read quietly, simply.

Sometimes poetry can perform the function of prayer for non-praying people, and this must be, I think, why it’s so often included in funeral services. But prayers are best when you know them well, and the words have worked their magic over years of repetition, and this is true of poetry too. I have known this Masefield sonnet most of my life, but never learned it by heart. My mother had a far better memory than me before Alzheimer’s got in the way and would have recalled most of the lines with a simple prompt, as well as screeds of others. For me, recalling whole poems is more difficult.

I think I will learn it properly now though. It’s a tricky one because the second and third quatrains are all one long rolling sentence, re-enacting a great and glorious journey. But the final couplet is easy, if you can speak it without your voice breaking.

I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.  

If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,  

And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.  

Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even Death, not even tears.




I couldn’t even remember at first which poem it came from — it was the image that stuck.



It’s hard to know how or why this happens, but happen it does. A fragment of a poem lodges in the mind, illogically and irreversibly. I woke thinking about one of these again: the small creature with “shining eyes between the leaves” in the grass or under the hedge, the life that goes on despite us and beside us.



Drawing of mouseIt was W H Davies who planted this image. It haunts me, especially when stuck in traffic, intent on some human imperative or other – the vision of a small creature nearby in the grass leading a separate life altogether.



Last June, when visiting New York and waiting on the train to go into the city, I glimpsed a chipmunk (I had never ever seen one before) busily about its business at the side of the train track. He was so easily missed, and yet there, as alive and urgent as we were, only a few yards away. W H Davies put him there for me, I reckon.



And about eight years ago, I was with my friend Stewart Eglin, outside the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy, on a bench in the sun, when I had a similar experience. We had spent an hour in the café inside but they had thrown us out. It was their closing time and we weren’t done chatting. So we sat outside in the sun, and as we talked, I noticed a mouse. (We were beside a public thoroughfare, a main road and traffic lights). The mouse popped up its head from a grating just opposite us and looked from side to side, slowly and carefully. Its ears were as fine and clear as a cartoon mouse, the sun highlighting their translucence. I could practically see its whiskers. Then it popped down again, into the dark. It was sheer chance that I noticed it at all. Chance and W H Davies.



All those lives going on just beside ours. All the things we don’t see.



W H Davies was probably best known during his life time for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, though he wanted his reputation to rest, above all, on his poetry, and for me, it does. When he needed inspiration he went walking, tramping through the countryside and over the hills, like his friend Edward Thomas.



Davies had many casual relationships with women, paying for sex on a regular basis, before he finally married (late but irrevocably). As a child, he had been brought up by his grandmother, in a strict Baptist faith, with many “shalt nots”. The theatre was regarded as sinful and the famous actor, Henry Irving (later knighted for his theatrical achievements) was known as the man who brought disgrace on the family.


But Davies was a rebel. He could never have settled for an ordinary life and even the story of how he became a poet is an extraordinary one (too long to tell here).W H Davies (from http://www.npex.co.uk/en/stories/135)



I tracked down the Davies poem that planted an image in my mind. It wasn’t at all the one I was expecting.



It was ‘A Fleeting Passion’, first published nearly a century ago in The Bird of Paradise. Here Davies recalls one of his sexual assignations. Oddly I had remembered nothing of the sex, the passion (fleeting or otherwise), or even the contrast between the man and the woman (to the woman’s grave disadvantage). It was the small creature in the grass at the edge of the road that had remained vivid and haunting. It will stay with me for life.



‘A Fleeting Passion’ is a strange poem, I think, as many of Davies’ poems are – despite his reputation for being a predictable Georgian. I’ll leave you with it.




A Fleeting Passion
(first published in The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems, 1914)



Thou shalt not laugh, thou shalt not romp,
Let’s grimly kiss with bated breath;
As quietly and solemnly
As Life when it is kissing Death.
Now in the silence of the grave,
My hand is squeezing that soft breast;
While thou dost in such passion lie,
It mocks me with its look of rest.


But when the morning comes at last,
And we must part, our passions cold,
You’ll think of some new feather, scarf
To buy with my small piece of gold;
And I’ll be dreaming of green lanes,
Where little things with beating hearts
Hold shining eyes between the leaves,
Till men with horses pass, and carts.


The Bird of Paradise (book cover)








Poor Fredegond Shove.  It doesn’t sound an auspicious name, though ‘shove’ rhymes, at the very least, with ‘love’.

Poor Fredegond Shove.  It doesn’t sound an auspicious name, though ‘shove’ rhymes, at the very least, with ‘love’.

She was a poet though. Why might you have heard of her?

Her main claim to fame is that she was one of only two female poets to make it into Edward Marsh’s best-selling anthology of Georgian Poetry, which ran to five volumes, all of which were issued from Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop.

Monro had taste. His books were well-made and a joy to handle, whatever you thought of the contents. He is also the man who started The Poetry Review: “Time is ripe for the forging of a weapon of criticism, and for an emphatic enunciation of literary standards”, he observed in January 1912, just over a century ago. Indeed.

The Poetry Bookshop was a very interesting place and Monro was its equally fascinating poet-proprietor. Anyone who was anybody in PoetryWorld arrived there sooner or later. It has come back into discussion of late, with the publication of Matthew Hollis’s book about Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France.

In this lovely book, there is no reference to Fredegond Shove. This is not a criticism of Hollis’s biography. There are so many people alive at any period of time: one can only mention the key players in any story. On the night when Thomas and Frost both attended a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, was Fredegond Shove there too? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps poetry was a minor part of her life.

Her other claim to fame as a poet is that Ralph Vaughan Williams set four of her poems to music, and they are still sung. However, this was not necessarily because V-W was deeply moved by the work. It could have been something to do with the fact that the great composer’s wife was Fredegond’s auntie.

Did they call her ‘Fred’? Did she have a sense of humour? She certainly had connections with the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ (Virginia Woolf was her mother’s cousin) but she mainly lived in Cambridge and that’s where she probably grew up, as the daughter of Frederic William Maitland, whose rather handsome portrait hangs in the National Gallery, and who, according to Wikipedia, was not only Fredegond’s father but “the modern father of English legal history.” But he didn’t keep well. He died in 1906, when Fredegond would have been about 17.

I like the look of her. Click HERE to see her sitting smoking a cigarette and sitting against a hay stook (seems a slightly dangerous activity to me). Here she must be about twenty-eight. She looks a strong woman, a bit risqué, and husband Gerald, who became known for his work as an academic economist (he was a King’s College graduate and worked all his life in that self-same college) seems so much  . . . meeker. By this time, Fred’s mother is married to Charles Darwin’s son, thus becoming Lady Florence Henrietta Darwin. Everything connects!

Fred’s husband, Gerald, when at Cambridge, was one of the Apostles, and so he must have known Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey well. This was during the Great War, in which Gerald was plainly not engaged – he was a conscientious objector (lots of the Bloomsbury Group were) and he worked, according to Wikipedia, as a poultry keeper at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. That’s where the photograph will have been taken, Lady O being not only a patron of the arts but also a bit of a photographer.

Fred’s mother, Florence Henrietta, wrote plays, with what success I do not know, but six of them can be found in Project Gutenberg. She named her daughters Fredegond (but you knew that already) and Ermengard. They sound like two of the Valkyrie, don’t they? I have no idea what Ermengard did, exposed as she was to such an intensity of literary and cultural influences. It’s hard enough to pursue Fred through the English letters in which she has got lost.

The name ‘Fredegond’, so far as I can see, comes from Fredeguna, the fearsome Queen consort of Chilperic 1, the Morvingian Frankish King of Soissons. What? You can read all about her if you follow the link. If names do, as they say, influence our destinies, things were looking interesting for our Fred, the Poet.

But it didn’t work out that way. The history of literature barely mentions poet Fredegond Shove. She had no children. She died at sixy, outliving Gerald by only two years (he also died at sixty). I wonder what she was like? HERE is a bit of her family tree.

Another anthologist who selected a couple of her poems was W H Davies. I have considerable respect for his Shorter Lyrics of the Twentieth Century, although it didn’t live up to Davies’ hopes that it would sell in similar numbers to the Georgian series. Davies had an ear for true lyric, and he wasn’t anything like as masculist as Marsh. In fact, Davies liked women (in every sense).

Here is ‘Song’, one of the poems Davies chose, a good little poem for a wet spring morning:

Spring lights her candles everywhere,
But death still hangs upon the air;
The celandine through dusk is lit,
The redbreasts from the holly flit,
At night the violets spring to birth
Out of the mute, encrusted earth.

The wind has cast his winding sheet
(Which is the sky) and he goes fleet
Over the country in the rain,
Singing how all the world is vain
And how, of all things vainest, he
Journeys above both land and sea.

It’s not an ambitious lyric, but it does its work neatly and well. She handles the verse form beautifully. Although the first stanza is pretty ordinary, the second lifts: it’s all one sentence and she carries it right through with a lovely cadence. The “death” that hangs on the air isn’t just a fancy metaphor for winter. “All the world is vain”. She was writing in the aftermath of the Great War: this is her minor Wasteland, her lost lyric.

And the other one that Davies chose – that’s the one I’d like to think she was writing, or thinking about, sitting against that hay stook in 1917. I think the ending may be a little dark and brooding – I wonder why the joys are “disembodied”: is it just an allusion to reading the stars, or did she already know there would not be children, not for Fred and Gerald? The sun, ‘as golden as a pound’ reminds us that there was a time – there really was – when a gold sovereign was worth the name. At first you think the comparison of a daisy’s face to ‘glass’ is odd – perhaps just there for the rhyme. But I don’t think so. I think it deliberately anticipates the other kind of glass, the mirror in the second stanza. Just a little poem, with a whole life behind it, written before Dutch Elm Disease decimated the “white stars”.

In memory of Fredegond Shove, then, minor poet of minor poets, here is ‘In a Field’.


The sun and moon I see
Beside me in the grass:
The moon, a daisy’s face
As pure and fine as glass;
The sun, a dandelion
As golden as a pound—
Oh what a firmament
Is this which I have found!

White stars the elm tree shakes
To twinkle where they lie
As bright upon the earth
As any in the sky.
This field is heaven’s glass
And gazing in I see
What disembodied joys
The future holds for me.



I can’t abide Visiting Hour by Norman McCaig. Marking school work has killed that poem for me. Too many nostrils bobbing down too many corridors in too many essays.

I can’t stand Visiting Hour by Norman MacCaig. Marking school work has killed it for me. Too many nostrils bobbing down too many corridors in too many MacCaiging essays.

However, Visiting Hour wasn’t dead when I was at school. It happened later, when I grew up and somehow turned into a teacher. I was appalled by the way schools in Scotland nurtured an obsession with certain texts. They taught the same poems, two or three of them, year in, year out. How could they bear it?

I think it’s because most school teachers don’t actually like poetry. But I don’t think this bizarre obsession with particular texts totally exterminates the Life of Po. Instead, it does something worse. It creates a disproportionate love for a particular piece, to the exclusion of all else. School leavers re-sitting exams in my evening class sometimes protest, ‘But I LOVE Visiting Hour. Please can I just write about it again?’ Arrgggh. I’m a teacher. Get me out of here.

Why do they love it? Perhaps because it’s the only poem they’ve ever studied and survived. The experience doesn’t seem to make them want to read any more poems, not even by Norman MacCaig.

I’ve just fished out the book we used for O level when I was at school in Cheshire forty-three years ago. It’s small and blue and the title is Ten Twentieth-century Poets, edited with notes by Maurice Wollman, first published in 1957. There’s a sticky label at the front: Wilmslow County Grammar School for Girls, and the book was once used, in turn, by Susan Heald (5B), Rosemary Green (4X), Lindsay Brown (4E) and Sheila Foster (6”). At the end of the year we were allowed to buy a copy if we wanted to, and I did.

The book contains poems by Auden, Betjeman, De la Mare, Eliot, Yeats, Andrew Young, Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost. We studied five of these – the last five in the list, the ones to whom I’ve given first names. I read some of the rest as well, including ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (a boy I had a crush on told me it was good).

I thought all poets were dead men. I was at an all-girls school studying poetry by all men.

They weren’t all quite dead. Most were: Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and Edwin Muir had been gone for ages. Frost was more recently defunct. I would have been astonished to know that Andrew Young was still alive. . . .

We didn’t obsess over one text. We read a clutch of poems by each of our five. We talked about some of them more than others, liked some of them more than others, and learned some of them off by heart, ready for the exams. We learned poems, and French irregular verbs, on the bus. I still have ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (Frost), by heart, and sections of the other poems – Edward Thomas, for example, in Out in the Dark:

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

I don’t believe we analysed poems to death. Or if we did, I have no memory of it. Only the poems.

I probably do love them more than I should, like Herman’s Hermits and Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’. They undoubtedly underpinned my sense of what poetry is, which is why, when I began to write myself, free verse wasn’t my first choice.

I think our class teacher liked poems. I think the girls in my class quite liked poems too. But I don’t know that. Perhaps while I was sitting there liking these words and phrases, they were being slowly asphyxiated for other people in the same classroom. Susan Heald, Rosemary Green, Lindsay Brown, Sheila Foster – where are you? What have you got to say about this?

Special offer: If you’re reading this, and you’re still at school (which doesn’t seem likely, but it’s worth a try), I’ll send you some free poetry (which you may or may not like). It won’t include a copy of Visiting Hour. Just email your address to nell@happenstancepress.com