Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

“Land Down Under” by Men at Work

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Men at Work singing Land Down Under

“Land Down Under”
by Colin Hay of Men at Work

Traveling in a fried-out combie1
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie2
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous.
She took me in and gave me breakfast.
And she said,

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels.
Six-foot four and full of muscles.
I said, Do you speak my language, brother?
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite3 sandwich
And he said,

I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder4
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Lying in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not a lot to say.
I said to the man, ‘Are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?’
And he said,

‘Oh! Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.’

1 A broken-down van. It comes from the VW Kombivan (a neologism for “combination van”), popular in the ’60s and early ’70s, especially with surfers and hippies.
2 Zombie was a particularly strong batch of marijuana, also known as “Zombie Grass,” named for its effect of transforming its users into the walking dead.
3 A fermented yeast spread; Australia’s national food.
3 Aussie slang meaning to vomit.

Colin Hay singing Land Down Under

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
In poetry, the sound of thunder is anapestic.


That is to say, its metrical pattern is two unstressed beats followed by a stressed. Oh sure, it can mimic other patterns — bacchiatic booms, dactylic detonations, cretic claps — but when conversing with the Muse, anapest is her meter of choice.

From stanza 47 of Res Publica:

“To the West / soft thunder answered in anapest / a pressing question.”

Thunder is also anaphoric, that is, it’s repetitive, which is why Colin Hay’s lyrics, “Can’t you hear, can’t you hear” (can’t you hear the anapests?) and “you better run, you better take cover” — apart from creating a relentless, undulating urgency — work so perfectly to produce the music of impending thunder.

Last week we looked at Dicken’s “The Ivy Green” and how van Gogh (who never owned an iPod, my plugged-in readers) was as much impressed by its song as by its sense. I tried to show how music contributes to meaning, not in some vague emotional sense — a melancholic minuet, or a cheerful Bach cantata — but rather in a more specific manner, the way a particular letter can produce, in certain cross-wired brains, a particular color. (The letters “I-V-Y,” according to my synesthetic son, would be orange-brown, purple, and pale yellow).

In other words, the music of a poem can contribute to such things as character, setting, narration, with as much effect as any words can. The “ivy” in Dickens’s poem was fully personified by the friendly, affectionate rhythm and song. Conversely, words — such as Hay’s extraordinary “Down Under” lyrics — can give a catchy, upbeat melody the sort of social vision and earthly gravitas it couldn’t possibly possess on its own.

We see this effect — like a kite string connecting the music above with the spool of our daily lives — most dramatically when words are used to create characters in songs, especially when these characters actually speak for themselves. Think of The Eagles with “Hotel California” — “And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here…'” — or Paul Simon’s penchant for dialogue and scene-setting (“And she said, ‘Honey take me dancing,'” in Graceland). In “Down Under” Hay creates several characters: a globetrotting, easy-going Aussie, a strange lady, a muscle-man from Brussels, the manager of an opium den in Bombay.

But it’s the thunder that can’t be forgotten.

Like its protagonist, the music of “Down Under” is carefree, playful, laid-back. But the thunder isn’t. The rhymes are casual, capricious (nervous/breakfast, thunder/cover, language/sandwich), but the thunder — “can’t you hear, can’t you hear” — is striking and deadly serious (“you’d better take cover”) and metaphorically more Australian, with its ceaseless rumble of history, than any Australian food or colloquialism. Such a thunder reverberates in every Australian sound, in every dialogue, in every situation of Australian life, even to those who are deaf to its portent.


Filed under Poetry Reviews

“The Ivy Green” by Charles Dickens

Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Ivy, July, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Ivy, July, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

The Ivy Green
from The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old!
Of right choice food are his meals, I ween,
In his cell so lone and cold.
The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim;
And the mouldering dust that years have made,
Is a merry meal for him.
      Creeping where no life is seen,
      A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!
And slily he traileth along the ground,
And his leaves he gently waves,
As he joyously hugs and crawleth round
The rich mould of dead men’s graves.
     Creeping where grim death has been,
     A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past;
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
     Creeping on where time has been,
     A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Van Gogh's Tree Trunks with Ivy, 1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

Van Gogh's Tree Trunks with Ivy, 1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
Last week we looked at the “greenwood tree” of Shakespeare, H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy. The “leaf-filtered light” of passionate love. A meaningless pairing of words, the “greenwood tree” — kind of like saying, “sitting in a traffic car”(“greenwood” meaning, more or less, a “forest”).

But that’s poetry, that’s passion, that’s the sibling of song talking above its conjoined twin — shy, soft-spoken sense.

Now, 200 years and 7 days after the birth of Charles Dickens, we look at the “rare old plant” which “slily” (snake-like) twists and twines around the greenwood tree: Ivy.

There’s nothing “rare” about ivy. Such words — including the two “daintys” in the first stanza — have less to do with describing ivy than with befriending it. The poem is loaded with these chummy terms of endearment; not just “dainty” (as in “excellent”), but stout (as in “strong”), staunch, rare, brave, hearty, hale and old. These are the words that sailors and ruffians sing in pubs to their fellow drunks — which is ironic, because “The Ivy Green” is recited in The Pickwick Papers not by a bunch of burly rogues, but by an old clergyman.

Composed with a healthy dose of hyberbaton (“ivy green,” “scattered been,” “fast he stealeth”), our “Ivy Green” — like Shakespeare’s “Greenwood Tree” — works best as music. Just read aloud the seventh line of all three stanzas. So rhythmically identical are they, so perfect for a pop-song, we could have Miley Cyrus sing them for us (“So I hopped off the plane at LAX” becomes “And the mouldering dust that years have made.”).

Yet here’s the wonder of it all: Sound and song, the visual arts and meaning — they’re constantly crossing over, changing sides. Sound creates sight, and sight creates sound, and meaning can’t live without this sort of constant synesthesia.

Let me explain what I mean: Vincent Van Gogh, the best of what can be called the “poet-painters” (Longfellow, Blake, Cummings, O’Hara, Tagore and so on) also befriended ivy. Sometimes ivy was a creative force: “Like the ivy on the walls, so my pen must cover this paper.” (I quote from van Gogh’s letters). Or a source of comfort, as when he described a new pair of black gloves as “good like ivy, good like going to church.” But equally, he saw ivy as a kind of killer, a strangler, an agent of death: “Illnesses…are perhaps to man what ivy is to the oak.”

Undergrowth with Ivy July, 1889 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Ivy, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

He admired “The Ivy Green,” and even quoted two lines of the poem — from memory — to his brother Theo. (See one of the actual letters here). I say from memory because both lines are, in fact, misquoted, van Gogh preferring to follow meter rather than a direct transcription. “A strange [instead of “rare”] old plant is the ivy green;” and, most tellingly, from line 11, “which stealeth on though he wear no wings.”

Vincent recalls both lines in the same meter (iamb, iamb, anapest, iamb), whereas Charles’s line 11 is actually the most metrically unusual (five-footed, trochaic) of all the lines in the poem.

The point is this: The idea that ivy is like a snake (despite all those leaves, no winged angel, it!) — dangerous, untrustworthy, cold-blooded, slyly entwining an innocent oak — this idea no doubt resonated with van Gogh. But it’s the song that made it memorable to him; the song that produced the imprint in his mind.

That is to say, the song, the music — as much as text and meaning — creates the impression. If you look at van Gogh’s paintings of ivy, you can hear the leaves rustling in the wind. And if you recite Dickens’s “Ivy Green,” you glimpse the essence of that “rare old plant,” its duplicity, its ravenous hunger, its creepiness if you will, in a way that metaphor alone could never create. We sing out of dread, not love. Trying to appease the unappeasable, we make song.

“Ivy loves the trunk of the old oak tree,” writes van Gogh, “and so cancer, that mysterious plant, attaches itself so often to people whose lives were nothing but ardent love and devotion. So, however terrible the mystery of these pains may be, the horror of them is sacred, and in them there might indeed be a gentle, heartbreaking thing.”

Dickens, too, saw this sacred horror. It inhabits the undergrowth of everything he wrote, attaching itself to so many “heartbreaking things” in his books. Which is why “The Ivy Green” — a kind of snake-charmer’s hymn to death — is the perfect song for a clergyman after all.


Filed under Poetry Reviews

To Loneliness! — Stanzas 103 to 108

Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

The writer Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

In which our narrator muses about what it means to be a writer in New Zealand . . .


A brief aside: I’m hungry and tired.
The following lines may have to wait
for me to fill a dinner plate.
For that, however, money’s required.
This place I write, this shameful shed
informs us where good writers are led.
To loneliness! And water-stained walls!
Woe is he whom Literature calls!
Why must our country’s minstrelsy
exist in crippling poverty?
Is it, as Kipling said, some debt
which traps us? Have we not paid it yet?59


Of course we’ve written honorable cheques,
each signed by a distinguished name
– by Katherine, Witi, Hulme, Frame
and others. And some, to be direct,
by cranks and frauds. (One name’s enough
to stain our credit – rhymes with ‘bluff’);60
But though we’re often praised and thanked,
well, are these payments ever banked?
Are writers like Sargeson and Stead61
in Kipling’s homeland ever read?
And even our Peter-the-Great’s new throne
was built on fiction Tolkien loaned.


I sometimes wonder, dear country – perhaps
we’re richer than we know; a kind
of native gold as yet un-mined
and not displayed on any maps
but which, in fact, might dwell below
our very noses. I surely owe
this thought to someone: Two years ago,
while coming back from Mexico
(a meeting with Vicente Fox)62
a series of light-fingered shocks
from potholes picked my taxi’s glove
compartment’s lock; and gave a shove;

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox


and out spilled notebooks on my lap.
I’m not a snoop. My eyes, however,
are less mannered; and go wherever
bidden. So in the notebook’s trap
they fell – my full attention snared
by what those scribbled pages bared;
in English and in Hindi, too;
a jumble of words – with some crossed-through
and others circled – but clear and careful
lines of verse composed. Not prayerful
hymns, but brilliant, witty, graphic
ballads penned in Auckland’s traffic!


Some lines I stored in memory.
Heroic couplets, all, like Homer;
and like that bard’s great hero-roamer,
his poems dealt with Odyssey.
I mean – his struggle to return
to where his thoughts and dreams most yearn;
to earn a living, to work, to drive
all day, but never to arrive
at what he called his ‘Destined Nation’.
And now and then in his narration,
his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one
that tells the fare when it is done.


(A pun, of course. Yet how it quickens
a poet’s heart to think of meters
charging fares to all our readers!
Perhaps we’d be inclined, like Dickens,
to generate more words, and faster;63
to be less poet, more webmaster.
If how I dined depended on
how fast or far my lexicon
propelled you, reader, I’d press
the pedal to the floor, digress
more often, and worry less about
how faithfully I kept my route.)

59 See footnote 2.

60 This editor was able to identify only one New Zealand author whose name rhymes with ‘bluff’. Because of the disparaging context of the reference, however, this editor prefers to let readers reach their own conclusions.

61 C.K. Stead (born 1932), New Zealand writer of talent. When I wrote to him requesting a meeting to discuss the publication of Zireaux’s work, Stead replied that he’d be interested in meeting Zireaux himself: ‘I’m always interested in meeting fellow writers – especially Kiwi writers who’ve achieved some international recognition. I’m not interested in meeting a publisher, thank you.’

62 Vicente Fox Quesada (born 1942), a handsome, slimly mustached man, was elected President of Mexico in 2000.

63 The idea that Charles Dickens was paid by the word – and hence his prolixity – is something of a myth (what publisher would be so foolish?). In truth, Dickens wrote in monthly installments, which forced him to write quickly while generating enough suspense to ensure sales of the next installment.


And now and then in his narration,  his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one  that tells the fare when it is done.

'And now and then in his narration, / his 'meter' sang – I mean the one / that tells the fare when it is done.'

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
Although a digression from our story, “The Taxi Driver’s Poem” — which will appear next week — pierces the very island-navel of Res Publica, Book One.

Nobody likes a poem with a message; but then again, nobody likes a poem that nobody dislikes. I utterly abhor any form of writing school or club, political party or religious fanaticism; but at the same time, in real life, there are few membership opportunities I’m able to refuse. Standing in the doorway of our elegant Georgian-styled foyer, the poor Jehovah’s Witnesses seem almost disappointed at the ease of my conversion. Eternal heaven? I’m in. Really? Absolutely.

In New Zealand I joined the National party first, the Maori party second, then the Greens, the United Front, ACT, the Labour party, in precisely that order. I’m a “Labral” in Australia and a proud Tea-Party Republicrat in the USA — and if I’m asked nicely enough to join the “Intelligent Designers” or the “Climate Change Skeptics,” or swear allegiance to the Flat Earth Society, I will do so without hesitation.

And so it is, in Res Publica, that I so willingly shake the hand of Thematic Interpretation. Nice to meet you. Sure I’ll tell you what it all means. I’ve written a poem about the interplay, or interrelationship, between isolation and immigration. The lacunae between culture, so to speak. Yes, my books are about exile and loneliness, and you’re absolutely right, the foreign-born taxi driver symbolizes what it means to be an artist. The taxi, like Res Publica, is a kind of island, really — an island that belongs to you, that you can control, but that is never completely your own.

Of course I’ll say it, why wouldn’t I?

The taxi driver is me.


Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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Filed under Res Publica, Book One