A. L. Morton


Numen Inest

Once, by my bedroom window,
Grew a tall cedar.
At night when the wind blew
The branches changed to arms:
Long arms that reached and mocked and pointed.

Hag’s arms,
That were still the branches of a cedar.
So that I learnt,
Not knowing that I had learnt,
Why men have worshipped trees.

Years after,
All my fears forgotten,
I climbed to the top of that tree
And found a seat in the highest branches
And a view over a fair country.

Yet today
When I pass by a cedar,
Or hear the wind howling in the night,
I forget the seat, and the fair view,
And the swaying hours.
I remember only those thin, dark hands
Threatening a frightened child.

A Meditation Upon Sorcery

A cat by a leafless tree
        steadily watching.
Above it a window half open,
        black and hollow,
Where stands a cage of brown or golden birds.
Above, three storeys more of innocent windows,
        plastic, featureless.

        My eye has found the stage, but finds no players.
        Nor can imagination,
        Call-boy of the mind’s theatre,
        Fill me my stage tonight.

What use for witchcraft in a world so old and rigid
That every path but one
Leads to the mountain of glass?
What need to conjure in a world so old and subtle
That every word and thought
Moves its appropriate stone?

Thin Dirge Appropriate to Sunset

I stand up in the sun

Put out my hands
over the sky’s rim
to clutch to scoop
what drop remains

They come back
they come back
they bring back only
the night’s first dew

The sun sets
chilled already
before it drops back
to the numb grave

So men have stood
on Arctic ice
and watched the winter sun
and known
they would not feel
the sun again

And men to die at sunrise
have seen
the grated shadow fade
from a cell’s grey walls

I know the sun
has risen a million times
rose yesterday
but find no comfort in analogy

So I Became ...

I remember first
the day long drive in the high trap
to buy a calf in a village dizzy with windmills.
Numbness of fingers dividing apples and cake
and my father’s voice:
‘Travellers must share and share.’

The word endured
was overlaid with notions of other kinds
making one’s way    and privilege of class
with self esteem    and rights ...
but endured.

The word grew strong and mated with other words.
Justice     fair dealing
grew tall in innocence
over the world's wall.

The mills spun sunlight
out of a fleecy sky.
I dreamed no other.

Till I awoke. And a cold dry
wind and a smoke black
world filled with bent backs
and upright chimneys    a world
where words meant
nothing    and justice did not run
outside four walls.

Words failed to serve save
to curse in Hamlet’s word or Job’s
the day.

Talk of justice in a new tongue
caught the low flame. A Traveller’s
Justice. Justice dividing. True
warfaring talk. My father’s voice
dividing the whole world like the last apple
on the Dalham road.

So I became
What ever I now am.


Sleep well tonight.

Why must you lie and press
Your eyes so close against the fern-grown tank
In which your mind turns endlessly,
To and fro,
Hoping, it may be, to discover
The word again made fish.

There’s nothing left to do:
No more than need be written.
O sleep well

Limed Spirit

Why should I care for a woman more or less
When there is so much beauty in the world?
Even though I had packed more into you
Than any one could hold,
Even suppose you are
The woman I had imagined,
You can’t compete
With the cherry now beginning to waste
Its sculptured snow among the grass.
You can’t compete
With spring.

But say that’s cold,
for the eye only,
And shrinks from body’s contact:
The sun all morning leant upon my shoulder
Far warmer than your arm.

But that’s sense only,
The sun can’t warm the mind:
There’s wisdom enough in books
And I have wiser friends than you.

Why should I care:
You can’t compete:

O valiant brain, did ever man
Reason himself from loving?

‘And Then Came Spring …’

I had lived a month in a hell
Compact of vague politeness,
Until I longed to blaspheme,
And, cursing,
To break the ring of weary kindliness.

And now, all day, in the sun
I have unrolled by bitterness like a carpet
And began to dream again.

Not the same dream
That filled the winter with restless ecstasy,
But one of an ordered life
Not too unworth the living.

My tepid hell began discovering limits.

All day I spread myself in the moth hating sun,
But with the night my black mood comes again.


On the straw bed
I lie unsleeping.
The stove dies slow ...

Furious the train rocks
Blind over the blind shires.
Archaic Euston
Waits primly as a Bloomsbury landlady,
Welcoming the cold dawn.

In the morning
The sun climbs up out of the sea,
Peers over Essex
At Colchester’s Roman wall,
Huge in my thought.

Furled on the Deben, all her fareing done,
The Isabella lies.

So far I see. But here all breaks, dissolves
Fragmentary. A tree
Becomes a voice. Fire light on a cup ...

The stove dies slow ...

And when I sleep I dream
Of you. And of the others.
But most of you.

Spring Morning


Suddenly, in one moment, you look up
And the mist is gone.

And there are the ragged elms
And the rooks circling,
Solid with the voice and hidden sound no longer.
Everything guessed is known,
Everything known now seen.
The sky deepens over the coloured earth.

The sun begins to burn
And the bones to rejoice.


The Orderly Sergeant,
Crying ‘Rise and Shine’,
Beats on the tent walls hollowly.

Limbs stretch and relax
Draining the dregs of sleep.

The cook house smoke
Coils up behind the willows.

Soon, like the first snail,
The first kit is dragged out into the sun,
Reluctantly across the beaded grass.
The sun begins to burn
And the bones to rejoice.

October 1942

The brown from the arm
And the leaf from the tree:
Summer’s surface scaling away.
Now the wind under the unpegged corner  
Twists the candle flame.

       In Stalingrad
       rain and the first frosts.

We grow perfect in the drill.
Our buttons shine.  
Our boots lack nothing.

       In Paris
       hungry men steal rifles 
       fashion grenades in cellars.

We sit in the last sun,
Dreaming of summer.
It is death’s dream. Stealing
Health from the heart.
Summer comes no more if we sleep now.

       And the prophet said, Know ye not that
       Ramoth in Gilead is ours and
       we sit still and take it not out of the hand of the King of Syria?

SOURCE: Morton, A. L. (Arthur Leslie). History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), from part V: Poems, pp. 326, 327, 328, 331-332, 333, 334, 335, 336, 337-338, 339.

Refer back to the table of contents for the other poems.

Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton
edited by Maurice Cornforth

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress

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Uploaded 20 February 2019

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