Barbary Castle is the great Iron Age earthwork on the Ridgeway outside Swindon - a truly magnificent site.
I had to do some work on this poem, and on others written around the same time and which I shall shortly post, to remove windy apostrophizing to great but abstract 'eternal things' - an unfortunate failing of mine at the time.
It was a dull, overcast day,The sky dank on the land like fox fur,
Gone grey as a horror.
My nose itched and my clothes clung
As I climbed through beech trees
In the chilly air,
Making for the top of Ashford Hill.
All round was a silence centuries deep
As if the world had eaten poppies.
But then, like the turn of a leaf in light,
There sprang a sound mixed in
With the brush of my legs in fern,
The soft crunch of mould underfoot –
It was the sound of water running,
Filling the tent-like spaces of the wood
With its blackbird song,
Swelling and fading in the afternoon gloom.
It always surprises me, Ashford Stream;
It stays hidden, then abruptly leaps out at you,
Like a child in a crowd,
In a mixture of anxiety and manners,
Clear and freckled with pebbles.
I stood a long time, listening to its song,
Though I cannot remember
That time seemed to pass.
Its muffled bells and bird calls
Were a ceaseless music,
Inhabiting the twilit world
Of tree and creeper caverns.
When I left,
Brushing the green lichen from the trees,
I looked back,
But could see only shadows
Lifting their ears to the sibilance of the stream
Like monks at duskfall
With their cowls thrown back
Rapt in appropriation of that unruffled note.
The sound of water running –It is the purest sound I know.
I have stood on Barbary Castle,
Watching the breeze make sorties in the grass,
Staring at the wide, bronze offering
Of cornland and grassland around;
I have listened to audible time
Booming quietly in my ears
As the wind flowed round me
Engrossing me in a pulse of movement;
And I have felt better able
To seize that into words
Than this binary, self-contained water language
Which is the music at the heart of music.
On the Russian steppe, on the Mexican plain,
In snow, in scree,
This music laces the air –
It trembles like starlight in the deep of night,
It surprises the traveller at dusty noon,
And when he leaves it behind
He walks away from himself
For it is the sound of homecoming,
Of journeys done,
Of tribulations weathered.
That day on Ashford HillThe sky hung like the death of all tone
With only an occasional thrush-call
Sharping the air;
But no dull day can remit my joy
When I stand by Ashford Stream
Like a father by his child
To be told with a gravity that breaks the heart
That all shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well.
I cannot describe it, this water music,
Can only experience it,
Standing at the lip of the world –
It is the form and sound of eternity;
Existence at peace with itself.
====================© September 1979/ Revised December 2011