Sunday 2 August 2020

Before and After Summer

'Ah, that's good,' I thought, as I heard the scream of swifts flying past my bedroom window. 'They're still here.' I was lying half asleep this morning, with Radio 3 playing softly, and... And at this point I realised the swifts were not outside, but on Radio 3, as part of its beguiling Sunday morning mix of birdsong and music, Sounds of the Earth.
  This morning's mix included a song (I'm not sure which one; I was half asleep) from Gerald Finzi's collection of Thomas Hardy settings, 'Before and After Summer'. This is the title poem –

Looking forward to the spring
One puts up with anything.
On this February day,
Though the winds leap down the street,
Wintry scourgings seem but play,
And these later shafts of sleet
– Sharper pointed than the first –
And these later snows – the worst –
Are as a half-transparent blind
Riddled by rays from sun behind.

Shadows of the October pine
Reach into this room of mine:
On the pine there stands a bird;
He is shadowed with the tree.
Mutely perched he bills no word;
Blank as I am even is he.
For those happy suns are past,
Fore-discerned in winter last.
When went by their pleasure, then?
I, alas, perceived not when.

Cheery stuff, isn't it? It also demonstrates – as does so much of Hardy's poetry and prose – how it is possible to write very badly, or at best awkwardly, yet still have something of greatness about your work. 'Looking forward to the spring/One puts up with anything' – really? And yet there is genuine expressive power, especially in the second stanza. That familiar rhetorical question 'Where did the summer go?' – one moment it was all ahead, the next it was all behind – finds pungent, if typically bleak, expression here.
  As for the swifts, they were certainly still around yesterday evening, half a dozen or or so circling quietly, after several days of mad, screaming flypasts. I hope they are back this evening, even if it is for the last time...

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