The gipsies lit their fires by the chalk-pit gate anew,
And the hoppled horses supped in the further dusk and dew;
The gnats flocked round the smoke like idlers as they were
And through the gorse and bushes the owl began to churr.
An ell above the woods the last of sunset glowed
With a dusky gold that filled the pond beside the road;
The cricketers had done, the leas all silent lay,
And the carriers clattering wheels went past and died away.
The gipsies lolled and gossiped, and ate their stolen swedes,
Made merry with mouth organs, worked toys with piths of reed:
The old wives puffed their pipes, nigh as black as their hair,
And not one of them all seemed to know the name of care.
‘The Idlers’, by early 20th century poet Edmund Blunden, unashamedly indulges in the figure of the noble savage. Living outside of industrialised society, Blunden suggests, gypsies are, free of our modern anxieties and stresses, live closer to nature and know better how to unwind at the end of a hard day’s thieving. Of course, nowadays the gypsies – Romany, English or Irish Gypsy, or New Age Traveller – are somewhat less separate from society than many of them would like to be (or some would want them to be!) They live a modernised life just like our own, with processed food, petrol and heating oil, and the ubiquitous TV and even computer screens that bring mass culture into their caravans. Their children are (by right, or by compulsion) educated and their poverty is ameliorated by benefits and state-provided services
Still, it’s nice to read a poem that makes a virtue of idleness for a change. Blunden, and we who read the poem, take pleasure in the gypsies’ pleasure. There’s something comforting in the idea of another kind of existence away from the rigours of the work ethic and other such bourgeois values. The poem paints a quite entrancing, romantic vision, what with the ‘dusky gold’ of the sunlight and the ‘churr’ of the owls and the simple enjoyable pastimes: craftwork, smoking, ‘lolling; and music. It just needs a nice jug of beer, and it would be idyllic…