HERE’S a Seasonal Toast to the Republic of Barbados – for a new year, a new independent republic – who wouldn’t want to look at the example its people have set to us all?

Who thinks Scotland should not – could not – be an independent republic, and free of all the shackles of empire? Let them hang their heads in shame then lift their eyes to bluer skies beyond the winter rainbow greys and a take in a vision of what freedom means.

The great American poet Theodore Roethke gave us one of the loveliest love poems ever written, “I Knew a Woman”. Here’s the first verse:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

What is the container? To a man’s eyes, a certain woman’s body, moving? Well, yes. This is a love poem by a man in praise of a woman. Call it sexist (by definition), but not misogynist. Call it part of a reactionary patriarchal tradition but don’t ignore the beauty of the sounds, the rhythms, the music of the verse, the precision of the syntax (that careful semi-colon, that sighing “Ah”, that meaningful colon, that quiet, perfect exclamation mark, those sly brackets) and the vision it holds forth by metaphor.

And what metaphors! We know a few murderous preposterous imposters in the London government who can quote Greek or Latin badly while getting paid fortunes for their woeful inadequacies, but Roethke is talking here about real poets who have grown up learning real Greek, and English as they may be.

Wouldn’t it be lovely just to see them, cheek to cheek, in their distinctive way, singing in chorus? Carols for Christmas? Let’s have the cheerful Republican Song Book! And what virtues are possessed by the lovely woman which might be spoken and sung about by such English poets, men or women, and such gods, who might perceive them clearly and accurately? These are virtues that give birth to song.

We can’t rule out love poems by men any more than we can deny that Christianity has channelled money to pay for art of great and lasting value. It doesn’t excuse the badness bad men do, or the atrocities committed in the name of Christ, but an awful lot of good things have been made through Christianity’s directives, including some great cathedrals (Chartres, Amiens, Glasgow, Kirkwall) and wonderful music (the great Scottish composer Robert Carver’s motet “O Bone Jesu”, for one, or Ronald Center’s “Dona Nobis Pacem” – that’s a piece that should be broadcast on Radio Scotland and shown in performance on the BBC and STV at least once a year! You can listen to it here: or here: and many paintings and a few poems too.

We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we don’t want to throw away the bathtub either. OK, fewer people bathe these days. Most of us take showers, I guess. (Metaphor: Christianity has dwindled, agnosticism and atheism are more common.) But sometimes a bath is what’s needed. (Metaphor: deep immersion, not rapture but a sense of wonder and respect, an overall body-cleansing, a renewal, what makes life worthwhile.) That’s another kind of container. How many shapes have baths contained? Or showers given watery contours to?

What about other containers? The container is also a nation, a location, a transformation through movement into new shapes dancing, new forms forming, loveliness appearing in unpredicted ways. And that’s the love in Roethke’s poem, not just that old and healthy vulgar thing, a man enjoying seeing a woman moving, just as a woman might enjoy seeing a man, but both, and more: all the movements love requires and generates. All living creatures move in different ways.

That creation of movement is Edwin Morgan’s definition of the kingdom of heaven. We mentioned this recently. In Morgan’s plays on the life of Christ, he says: “Take a crossbow to the bloated belly of convention” and explains, “The kingdom of heaven is not a thing. / Nor is it a place, it is alive, it grows.” For “in the midst of life I find myself in art. / In the midst of art I find myself in life.”

And this is what Roethke is performing for us in this poem. Life, art, the body, the medium of language (English, Greek) and poetry. It’s a vision of affirmation and possibility. Read it for yourself online at: Meanwhile, here’s the last stanza.

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own; What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

And so we come back to our opening paragraph: Barbados, a new republic, a new freedom: “What’s freedom for? To know eternity.” Whether we see that freedom in a lover, as she or he might reciprocate whatever we see in her or his own ways, that liberation into the theatre of eternity is exactly what the poem enacts and celebrates, and despite all the miserable things that 2021 have brought upon us, I’ll be raising a tumbler of rum to my comrades in Barbados to wish them well for the dance they’re just embarking on now.

AND hoping to join them in a comity of nations, a dance of the republics, a love song of independent countries, in the very foreseeable – and doing all I can to help make that happen.

I’ll be back next week for a New Year toast in commemoration of the great Barbados poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite, a pioneer of what he called “nation language” – the speech and writing of his native place which dances, moves, takes shape, in ways very different from the standard English forms we’ve been using for a while. There’s more to be said there.

But for Christmas, what can we present to match our friends, Brathwaite in Barbados and Roethke in America, from our own co-ordinate point on the compass of Earth. Well, John Barbour in his epic of origins, The Bruce, puts it like this: A! fredome is a noble thing!

Fredome mayss man haiff liking, Fredome all solace to man giffis; He levys at ess that freely levys.

In my own revision of this, I’ve tried to translate these lines into something immediate, here and now, something as true to Scotland as it must be to Barbados:

Freedom! A noble thing that word affirms,
What liking means, this word confirms!
It comforts and regenerates assurance,
Gives easefulness to all our life’s endurance.
No noble heart could ever rest And pleasure’s absent – that’s the test –
When freedom’s taken. What’s desire
For freedom for, if not to live and never tire
Opposing that oppressive power
That holds back freedom from our
Lives? For all the gold in earth that lies
Is nothing as to freedom’s prize.

So here’s to the end of the tyranny of commercialism and the gross excesses of hypocritical piety that “the bloated belly” of conventional Christmas is drenched in, and here’s to the New Year to come. May it bring improvement to us all!