Both modern and ancient, this variation on the pastoral is a poignant meditation on the fate of the South Downs
This week's poem, "Shepherds", gives contemporary resonance to the pastoral elegy. It's by Sasha Dugdale and comes from her third collection Red House, published by Carcanet last year under their Oxford Poets imprint. Pastoral poets traditionally transposed their shepherd characters to a distant Golden Age, and gave them infinite leisure for their courtly preoccupations. Dugdale's focus is on the Sussex shepherds of the South Downs, "ghosts" now, but also real working men in a real place. Their decline, hastened by the expansion of arable farming during the second world war, seems to have otherwise been little noticed or lamented. These shepherds and their flocks trudged the old chalk grassland of the South Downs for thousands of years, and, as the poem shows us, helped shape the landscape as it is now. The very turf – short, springy, foot-friendly – is the work of generations of browsing sheep and nibbling rabbits.
The month is June, suggesting midsummer abundance and ceremony, with perhaps a gentle heat haze. The fine summer of 1914 seems also to hover. As if the figures might have reassembled "out of battle", the hook on the end of the shepherd's crook, designed to hold a lantern, carries in line two an ominous "musket barrel."
The internal "crook/hook" rhyme is picked up by "book" at the end of the stanza. That predominantly choppy sound might hint at distant gunfire, though it also echoes the tones of the solider sheep-bells, summoned by WH Hudson in A Shepherd's Life, as "the sonorous clonk-clonk of the big copper bell".
The visually striking compound depiction of the wind-sculpted hawthorn as "mermaid's hair and open book" is followed by an isolated hexameter line, like a down-to-earth corrective: "There are those who died on the hills, and those who died in their beds". Subsequent images suggest accidental conflagration ("the oil lamp tipped") as well as soldiering ("their crook a rifle/ cigarettes for their bible"). The word "rifle", rather than "musket", denotes a more recent war, and produces a startling para-rhyme with "bible".
The landscape seems reflected in the shape of the poem. Ebbing and flowing rhythms gradually unveil new perspectives. Dugdale sometimes avoids punctuation, letting the natural break at the end of the line do the work, or leaving the syntactic units connectively open. An occasional comma or stop at the end of a line seems to forge a link with the next, rather than a separation. The short closing line of each stanza creates a melodic cadence which is often a prelude to the next unit of sound.
"The South is tender and will harbour anyone," Edward Thomas wrote in his essay, "The South Country". This gentleness is registered by Dugdale when she personifies and feminises the land and writes that she (the land) is "never like a moor, never fierce like that". But neither is Nature, as conceived in the Red House poems, soft and sweet. Power as well as kindness is recognised in the way "She'd carry you back to our own gate/ On the palm of her hand … " There's a faintly visionary aspect, too. Although "the hills are not high" they are separate from "our low troubles". The children see them with "a shock of memory" – suggesting that the view, although familiar, is always freshly sensed, and brings, despite its magical proximity to the sky, a feeling of ancestral closeness.
The shepherds are not simply ghostly or mythic in stanza four: their association with the remote "high roads" of "kings and saints" is also a function of their work. The last we see of them is their dogs, also "Creatures apart". The poem is not entirely centred on the shepherds, however, and now it extends its reach in time and space – "Down the scarp, up there … " The beautiful last stanza reworks the trope of land as Bible, prefigured by the hawthorn's "open book". After the "blazing white" of sunlit chalk, suggesting bridal linen as well as clean paper, lovingly picked-out details illuminate this sacred South Downs text, and the sounds are as delicate as the images: "She wrote it in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady's smock/ She wrote it in sweet marjoram and adorned it with bells … "
The poignancy of the past tense and the possessive pronoun ("she wrote it for her shepherds") deepens the linguistic metaphor. What began as an elegy for the shepherds, and then became a eulogy for the Downs, seems finally to elegise language – the collaborative meaning made and shared between the place and its inhabitants, "Who are gone". The unreadable landscape seems, in that bleakly simple ending, to anticipate its own decline, a decline that can be interpreted to include printed "bibles" of all kinds. Pastoral gains a contemporary "edge" in Dugdale's threnody, but the poem's roots surely extend beyond ecological or social critique into the live connection between the close-reading poet (also a professional translator) and her native Sussex countryside.
Late June the ghosts of shepherds meet on the hills
And one has his crook with its musket barrel hook
One carries a Bible, and all wear the smock
And listen out for the little bells and the canister bells
Worn by the sheep and the big cattle, carried by the wind
Which shapes the hawthorn into mermaid's hair and open book.
There are those who died on the hills, and those who died in their beds,
The haloed, who wear a flame above them, were
Asleep in their wagons, the stove door ajar
The oil lamp tipped. And scores stamp
A last ghastly dawn patrol – their crook a rifle
Cigarettes for their bible.
The hills are not high. High enough
To exist outside us, our low troubles
At the school gates the children look up
And see with a shock of memory
That the earth gathers itself
Into another world
One closer to the sky
Once peopled by shepherds,
Who inherited the high roads from kings and saints
As they passed, withy ropes about their shoulders.
Who spoke little, and wore tall hats
Bawled gently at their dogs,
Who were themselves
Times when the mist comes up
And rolls like weighted grey
Down the scarp, up there
The cars see their lamps reflected back
A metre ahead, and the back of her is silent
But never like a moor, never fierce like that
She'd carry you back to your own gate
On the palm of her hand – not bury you alive.
Her spine is a landshed, and a land of itself
A land of haunches and shoulders, and glistening fields
Impossible that they weren't in love with her
The kindness of her miles, the smalls of her back,
The blazing white of her summers.
The Bible is her book: she wrote it for her shepherds
To train them in oblivion and seasons
And the time she knows, the slowest time on earth.
She wrote it in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady's smock
She wrote it in sweet marjoram and she adorned it with bells
And it has no meaning for anyone, except the shepherds
Who are gone.