Climate change, rising sea levels, earthquakes and volcanoes have left their mark across the European continent. Long ago, we were part of the same land mass. The Channel was a river, the Thames a stream, and we – our islands, Ireland and Scandinavia – were all part of the same huge landmass sprawling across Europe and Africa. Our languages are linked with common stems going back beyond Greek and Latin. Our art, our cuisine, our music, our customs and traditions have much in common. Neither wars nor eons of political meddling change that.
European Poems on the Underground
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the UK joining the European Union.
To celebrate our 30th birthday in the EU in 2003, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) brought out a little booklet called European Poems on the Underground. It included 16 poems that had appeared as posters in London underground stations in celebration of the UK’s presidency of the European Union in 1998, and a further nine that were displayed to mark the UK’s 30 years in the EU (1973–2003).
The FCO’s EU public diplomacy section had chosen these short poems and published them with translations. “Poems do not need passports”, the minister for Europe, Denis MacShane wrote in the foreword. “Poets belong to nations but a great poem does not recognise frontiers… In Europe we are blessed… the poets of Europe talk to us over time and tongues.”
As he rightly said, the whole ‘Poems on the Underground’ initiative gave pleasure to millions who used the London Tube and the idea has been copied by various public transport networks in Europe.
He concluded by saying we can “honour the diversity and vigour of our common European poetry by enjoying these poems from our partner nations in the EU”. In 2003, the EU had 16 members. In 2012, the year of the Olympics in the UK, we were part of an EU of 27 states, about to welcome Croatia as the 28th member in 2013.
Our politics has been scarred by Brexit. Division stains our union of little nations on this tiny island, but cultural diversity still brings us joy.
To mark what would have been our 50th anniversary in the EU, we bring you some poems we enjoy. Share those you love with us on social media. And share with us all poems written by the peoples of the world who have made their homes in Europe and with us here.
2022 – war in Europe, again
This is a year stained by grief and inhumanity. This is a year when yet again Russia used military force against those seeking alternative ways to organise their societies peacefully. This is a year when the refugee crisis brought death again to the Channel.
Much poetry is bleak. Within it lies wisdom and seeds of hope.
How much has been learned from the past? A few proverbs from Émile Zola suggest too little. And a glance at poetry from the past reminds us that peace and freedom are forever fragile and must be sustained by each new generation. If the loss of freedom is the price for choosing to ignore politics, is it worth it?
“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.”Émile Zola
“I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.”Émile Zola, J’accuse!
The European Poems on the Underground opened with an extract from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. He was born in 1265 and died in 1321. Seamus Heaney provided this translation of Canto 1, 1-9, from Inferno for the collection. It is as poignant today as 700 years ago.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood where the right road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.
But to rehearse the good it also brought me
I will speak about the other things I saw there.
War and refugees
And on our continent, we have war again.
I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.
I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don’t like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.
Poems and poets that speak to us
And then there are so many poems from the past that speak to us. Here are a few of our favourites.
Who Has Seen the Wind?
by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by
Emily Bronte was born in Thornton in 1818 and died in Haworth in 1848. She wrote poetry as well as novels, including on the theme of hope.
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!
Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping;
If I listened, she would cease.
False she was, and unrelenting;
When my last joys strewed the ground,
Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
Those sad relics scattered round;
Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!
W B Yeats
He wishes for the cloths of heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
For whom the bell tolls
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were:
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Freedom, liberty and the truth
Is there truth too in what Doris Lessing (1919-2013) said in The Golden Notebook?
Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born.
Maybe we should give the last word on this to Yorkshire’s poet, Ted Hughes, who said: “Never let defeat have the last word.”
Hughes was poet laureate from 1994 until his death in 1998. He was also the writer of children’s books. He lived at 1 Aspinall Street, in Mytholmroyd in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father was William Henry (1894–1981) and his mother Edith (née Farrar) Hughes (1898–1969). He spent his childhood in the Calder Valley and on the Pennines. He wrote The Iron Man which inspired member of the 1960s rock group, The Who, Pete Townshend’s rock opera, and the cartoon The Iron Giant.
We must do better, together
Perhaps take a moment and reflect with us on how each generation grapples with making sense of a world where darkness and light, selfishness and kindness, the abuse of power and freedom challenge us. Poetry often echoes our longings and despair. But it also sharpens our awareness of wellbeing and perhaps reminds us that we can do better. We must do better. We have lost so much by forgetting we are all part of humankind. Yet if we are to confront the challenges facing us, don’t we have to do so together?