A Rough Walk Home Lilian Bowes Lyon

A Rough Walk Home Lilian Bowes Lyon book cover


A rare moment of sentimentality on familiar, Northumberland territory in “Allendale Dog”

A lean tyke, supple
As the long winds that ripple
Counties cool as ivory,
He wills the moving reverie
Of northerly-fathered flocks.
Prick-eared, he lurks
To leeward, patiently bold;
Lift arm or lift an eyebrow,
He’ll weave his sky-brow
Spell round the offender
Who has taken leave to wander,
Re-knottingas if by chance
The cordon of Providence.

His fibre of wit is spun
From the careful brain of man,
Yet gleams in its own right;
He skims gay light
From mountains gaunt with cold;
Certain as love, brings home
The blundering ewe, the lamb
By snows in March confounded;
You storm-bound Jill or Jack,
Me too he has befriended.

Fells under heaven are his;
The poet he is
Of dawns that wring new gold
Like dew from danger’s fleece,
And the sheep-bell’s travelling peace.

Oh comrade emperors lack!”

The last stanza and last line could have been dropped without affecting the overall poem. However, the slip is forgivable and, following her work in the Second World War, it’s not surprising her subject matter touches on nostalgia. The poem itself draws an effective, natural portrait of both sheepdog and countryside where Spring doesn’t bring lush greenery and new life but Easter snows and lambs shocked into the toughness they’ll need if they are to see summer. Lilian Bowes Lyon wasn’t without hope though, in “English Autumn, 1944”

Happy, unhappy October weather.
Out of the sky let nothing drop;
Only the rain or a rainbow feather,
Light in the air as hope.

Cool on the wind the curlews call you,
Weaving a wish, as Penelope wove
Her perpetual tapestry: nothing befall you,
Love, my love, my love.

She references Penelope who undid her weaving each night to give her a task for tomorrow as she waited the return of her husband: the feminine version of Sisyphus’s rock. The rhythm bounces on the bi-syllabic rhyme words (“weather”, “feather”, “call you”, “befall you”) with joy: this is not a forlorn hope but a real one.  The poem seems slight but is put together with skill that is apparent on re-reading.

Lilian Bowes Lyon hasn’t quite put the after-effects of war completely behind her, or abandoned it in her poems. In “A Choir of Close-knit Bones”, “Pray now for men who have survived the wrath/ And fury of adverse fate:/ That serious tomorrow may not fall too lightly,/ Without perceived new weight, upon the heart,/ Nor sorrow mean henceforth/ An easy burden, a softly settling moth….”  She looks towards her life’s end too, “A Shepherd’s Coat” begins, “I woke from death and dreaming./ His absence be the child I carry,/ All days, and all years./ Eternally and this night he will deliver me…” and ends, “I shall not want, I wake renewed by death,/ A shepherd’s coat drawn over me.” The penultimate line references Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd…”. She struggled with faith, rejecting her father’s showy devoutness (her father commissioned a set of stained glass windows for the local church after an elder sister survived a car crash), but still retaining a belief. The poem is not fanciful either. By this time she had had her legs amputated below the knee and was facing up to the reality that she would require further amputations (“A Rough Walk Home” was published two years before both her legs were amputated below her hips) and struggling with failing health and chronic pain. None of this would stop her writing though.

“A Rough Walk Home” feels very much like a transition. Her earlier poems focused on her beloved Northumbrian countryside, her middle poems very much show the influence of Gerald Manley Hopkins (especially in her fondness for compound words) and these later poems show a poet in development. Her poems have matured and she is more confident in her poetic skills. Lilian Bowes Lyon is paring down her language, taking out the poetic padding and making each word justify its inclusion. She is both returning to nature and broadening her subjects to include humanity. She leaves a firm, poetic foundation.

Originally “A Rough Walk Home” had sixteen poems, but in “Collected Poems”, Lilian Bowes Lyon added “An Old Farm Labourer”, “Leda”, “Dumb in April”, “His Fur is on Fire”, “The Field to the Snow” and “Burning Leaves”.


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