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Lay for the Day
22nd January

This elegy for Ronnie Wathen, poet, piper and mountaineer, reflects his fascination, shortly before his death, with Byron and particularly with the episodic epic Don Juan, which is written in the stanza I have attempted below. (The second stanza is a second.)
George Gordon, Lord Byron – “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” – was born on this day in 1788.

Byronics for Ronnie W.

I’m taking up this stanza in remembrance
Of a dear friend just recently departed
And hoping I can make of the encumbrance
Of the triple rhyme, as he in his art did,
A lively, tripping reel and not a glum dance.
There’s one verse almost done before it’s started,
And on we race, without let-up or up-let,
To take the final fence, the closing couplet.

I’m optimistic that I’ll get the hang
Of the mettlesome form and make it canter
Or trot on command, like Byron who rang
The changes on it, finding it for banter
Much better suited than for Sturm und Drang
Or any kind of windy, wordy cant – a
Crime of which he accused the Lakers’ gang:
Of that, and being Judases to freedom,
And, worst of all, so dull he scarce could read ’em.

Now Ron, who died untimely late last year,
Was of this stanza lately much enamoured
And got his bardic mill in such high gear
That just before his sudden end he hammered
Them out by the dozen. He could be freer
Thus, it seems, to shape his thoughts as they clamoured;
As though his brain was troubled by the rumour
Of what it nursed within – a lethal tumour.

What kind of man was this I elegise?
A poet by calling, by class patrician;
Direct in his speech, of substantial size;
A climber, a father and a musician,
An Irish piper on whom were no flies.
From such a thumbnail sketch of his condition
You really know no more than next to nothing
Of who he was, that good man, Ronnie Wathen.

There are colourful escapades a-plenty
That other, older friends could tell, I’m sure.
What he was like at thirty or at twenty
I can only guess. How in the wide, pure
Air of the mountains or in some cramped tent he
Looked, let others relate. I’m of a newer
Generation, and one perhaps less truthful.
But here’s a fact: he seemed forever youthful.

I said before he’d heard the Muse’s call,
Yet he was rather tardy in responding.
Perhaps he resented being her thrall,
Which is, after all, a painful, desponding
Position that can drive you up the wall;
And arty pretensions were not Ron’s thing.
But she had her way with him in the end,
Sending verse as fast as it could be penned.

Apart from Lord Byron (his final choice
Of mentor), the one whose spell wouldn’t break,
With whom he plunged head over heels, was Joyce.
He had long stretches of Finnegans Wake
By heart, and wakened for me its weird voice.
He could play the pipes and, for heaven’s sake,
At the same time recite that dense, Morphean
Language – an achievement close to Orphean.

In fact most things Irish Ronnie revered;
Her rocks and her rivers, her soaking rains
And the splendour of skies suddenly cleared.
As for the music, it ran in his veins
As Guinness does in hers. He’d mountaineered,
Piped and rambled her crags and pubs and lanes.
Did he long, like the good (or wicked) lord,
To work and wield, or fall on, freedom’s sword?

I doubt it somehow. However he’d grieve
Or rage at the wrongs done the Emerald Isle,
His heart was gentle. To shatter and cleave
The heads and limbs of folk was not his style,
Even for a higher cause. To bereave
One widow and two children was a vile
Enough deed, and though he’d battle all
Night in an argument, he wouldn’t brawl.

So there you have him – or perhaps you don’t:
An upright, downright man all round; just mad
Enough to be sane; maddening too, I won’t
Deny; strong and generous, with a scad
Of talents to boot. On the Wathen front
All’s quiet now, and reaching a decad
Of these stanzas borrowed from Byron he
So much liked, I’ll end: God bless, goodbye Ronnie.


John Gibbens
from Becoming Light

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar