Weekly Poem #2: Westphalian Song

Here’s Weekly Poem #2 – thought I’d do this one in English just for a change. Plus it’s an English poem, so that even makes sense in a way. For those of you who missed the first one: I’ve decided to introduce this category to reminisce about my „former life“ a little – and because I think that, in times like these, reading poetry won’t hurt. I try to maintain the update routine with a new poem every Tuesday, commenting on the „Weekly Poem“ in a blog post and also putting it on display in the ugly but aptly named „secondary sidebar“ to the right of your screen.

So, today, I’ve picked one of my all-time favourites. It is also a love poem of sorts: „Westphalian Song“ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Although it’s been a while, I can actually type this from memory. Go figure.

Westphalian Song

When thou to my true love com’st
Greet her from me kindly.

When she asks thee how I fare
Say folks in heaven fare finely.

When she asks „What! Is he sick?“
Say „Dead!“, and when for sorrow

She begins to sob and cry
Say I come tomorrow.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Now what? Like many of you, probably, I got to know Coleridge through Iron Maiden, who cribbed largely from his long poem „The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“ in order to publish, well, a rather long song named „The Rime of The Ancient Mariner“. I first read the name Chesterton in a CD booklet by Iron Maiden as well, by the way. He’s a candidate for one of the next issues of the Weekly Poem. And to think our parents warned us…

Back in the day, that impressed me a lot. I thought they must be quite literate for your run-of-the-mill Eighties metal band. Until I got to read the original poem and discovered that there are several literal quotations with lots of paraphrased passages thrown in. And that’s it. Still, I like the band (after all, they MIGHT be literate), I like the song (it made for great practice material, running on for 14 minutes), and the name Coleridge rang a bell when I first came across it.

So, the Westphalian Song. I first discovered it (I think) in a Reclam Edition. And I was struck by the way the first person narrator apparently fools his ladyfriend, his „true love“ even. It’s a kind of practical joke I’d appreciate – given that it wasn’t being played on me. I brought this poem to a class named „500 years of love poetry“, where we were supposed to bring our fav poems, covering the name of the author and the year they were written. Nobody guessed it, of course – but the comment of the woman running the class made me think: „What an unbelievably cruel bastard!“. Well, maybe.

I prefer to think of him more as a desperate lover, on the brink of becoming a cynic for lack of attention by his „true love“ – he’s provoking a reaction, although a pretty painful one, by taking extreme measures. Later on, Twain would make use of that theme in „Huckleberry Finn“, when the boys attend their own funeral (now, isn’t that a dream we all share?).

And even later, another truly great poet, Bob Geldof picked up the tone in his beautifully written „A Gospel Song“:

If you see her say hello
If she asks how I’m doing let her know
If she says is he O.K. say it’s slow
But he’s coming round
And if you sleep with her
Through the darkest night
And you wake beside her in the early light
Kiss her gently like I might
And bring her round

It’s on the „Vegetarians of Love“ album which all of you should own, by the way.

But I digress. Coleridge. Yeah. So I give you that the guy in the poem is a cruel bastard – but I would also like you girls to cut him some slack. He’s not only cruel to his girlfriend but also to himself. And he’ll be there to dry her tears.

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