The sheepdog- U A Fanthorpe


After the very bright light,
And the talking bird,
And the singing,
And the sky filled up wi’ wings,
And then the silence,

Our lads sez
We’d better go, then.
Stay, Shep. Good dog, stay.
So I stayed wi’ t’ sheep.

After they’d cum back
It sounded grand, what they’d seen.
Camels and kings, and such,
Wi’ presents – human sort,
Not the kind you eat –
And a baby. Presents wes for him
Our lads took him a lamb.

I had to stay behind wi’ t’ sheep.
Pity they didn’t tek me along too.
I’m good wi’ lambs,
And the baby might have liked a dog
After all that myrrh and such.

This poem goes straight to the heart- that’s why I love it so much. At first you approach it with a certain world weariness. Oh no ! You think. My life seen through the eyes of a dog. How unoriginal.

And the language is so simple- almost child-like. “ the singing/ And the sky filled up wi’ wings.” But then you slowly catch on to what’s happening here- it’s The Nativity, and the shepherds are going to visit the Christ child. But this isn’t happening in the Holy Land- this is happening in Yorkshire, the place I love- and the shepherds won’t be wearing Middle Eastern robes- they’ll be wearing corduroy trousers and thick coats and they’ll talk broad Yorkshire.
“ Our lads sez”
They leave the dog behind to look after the sheep because he’s a good dog. He can be trusted. And there’s a hint of sadness in the line “ So I stayed wi’t sheep” – the cattle can be present in the stable, but the dog has responsibilities.
“ And after the’d cum back/ it sounded grand, what they’ve seen” “ grand” is pure Yorkshire.
And then the presents`” Our lads took him a lamb”- notice the loyalty the dog shows ‘- “our lads.”
But the dog has responsibilities. He has to miss the greatest event the world has known because he has sheep to look after- and that’s what sheepdogs must do.
The last few lines break me up. Look at them:

“Pity they didn’t tek me along too.
I’m good wi lambs”

First of all there’s the regret. “ Pity they didn’t tek me along too.” The dog understands something of what is happened- but can’t take it all in. He knows only there has been a special birth, and that children love dogs, and he wishes with all his heart, that he could have been there.

That’s what good poetry is. It touches your heart.

You can hear it here:

You can here another UA Fanthorpe poem here:

Or another poem of mine here Tides


Hey Mister Tangerine Man

Clever, frail and tortured


No- I haven’t forgotten the Five Desert Island Poets. So far we’ve had Fanthorpe, Smith and Donne.

Number Four is John Clare. Never heard of him ? Doesn’t matter. He was almost forgotten until he had a sudden and well deserved revival thirty years ago.

John Clare was a countryman, born in Northamptonshire in 1798. The son of a farm labourer he was used to bad weather and poor food. He went to school, though, and soon became an avid reader. His first job was as potboy at he local pub, then he was a gardener and finally worked in the fields like his father. He had started writing by this time, imitating his favourite poets.

He married in 1820 and fathered seven children.

His first major work was “ “The Shepherd”s Calendar” in 1827, and, though it’s regarded as a major poem now, it flopped then. He was forced to hawk it round he villages himself. The stress of providing for a family, his own physical frailty, his feeling of isolation from his peers all led him to drink and depression, and in 1837 ( after some poetic success) he voluntarily entered a private asylum, where he stayed until 1841. Then he escaped back home- it didn’t work out- and he was admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum ,where he stayed until his death in 1864.

There you have the bare bones of his life. Before we get on to his poetry, let’s consider the kind of world Clare lived in, for it was a very different one from our own.

To start with, there were fewer people in the street. The population of the UK in the eighteenth century was around 13 million, against the 70 plus million today. If there were fewer people around, then your relationships with the ones that were there would be all the more intense. You bumped into the same people day after day for all your life. Most people lived and died within a ten mile circle.

The only mass medium was the newspaper- and they were so expensive that their audience was limited to the affluent.

Society was a layer cake of different social classes, and Clare was pretty near the bottom.

Outside the cities, there was a silence that we cannot imagine. No traffic noise. No radio or tv. No digital media.

Life had not really changed for the agricultural labourer for hundreds of years

Keep that in mind when we come to look at his poems.

Which we are not going to do now- because (a) I don’t want to load you down with a great heap of words and (b) I’m typing this in a very cold room and my finger ends are turning blue with cold SO keep this frail, clever, tortured man at the back of your mind until we come back to him- and his poetry- another time.

A cold song for a cold night

Ok-  this week we’re going to the  Boss, the Top Banana, the Mensch- we’re going to look at something by William Shakespeare.

Arrgh ! No ! Not Shakespeare thingy  ! He’s old fashioned and boring and you can’t understand him and he’s like…just dull !

Silence oik ! And listen to this:

What do you think ?  Lovely reading but isn’t the poem a bit olde worlde ? A bit twee ?

A bit chocolate box ? Think again

Line 1 OK- I concede- an average opening line for a winter poem. We’ve all seen icicles

Line 2. Dick the shepherd tells us this a rural poem. Why is he blowing on his nail ? Because he hasn’t got any gloves ! Because he’s poor and cold and his finger ends hurt like hell.

Line 3. We get the first hints of a household here. There’s Dick the shepherd and Tom the servant- and Tom is carrying logs in because they’re going to be needed on the fire.

Line 4. It’s so cold the milk is solid. We’re starting to get a Breughel winter scene here.

Line 5. Key words are “nipped” -you feel as though the blood is freezing in your veins. And “foul” – the roads are impassable

Line 6. The owl. Not the most cheerful of birds- then why “ merry” ? Are we getting the feeling that The Boss is being a bit ironic here?

I won’t do a full line-by-line run through of the next verse. I’d only point out (a) the breathless use of “ and” throughout the poem. He can’t wait to tell the story of our house. (b) there’s a cast of characters here- the parson who can’t be heard because of the coughing, Marian, and greasy Joan- who’s probably the kitchen maid. And  why is she keeling (scraping) the pot ? Because she’s hungry and she’s scraping out the last bit of meat or dried on gravy, that’s why.

So the “merry note” of the owl isn’t so merry after all.

Far from being a jolly, rilly-me-dilly-me-and-a raspberry -o song, this is a harsh portrayal of a household on the breadline, in the middle of a filthy, cold winter.

Difficult ? Not really. Bland ? Certainly not.Powerful ? I think so.

There, that didn’t hurt, did it ?