This blog is six years old today. I have changed a lot in six years and the weight of my old posts has begun to feel oppressive, so I won’t be updating this blog any more. However, I will be writing at my new blog nothing was disastrous, which currently feels wonderfully clean and empty and full of promise.
You know when you pick up a book in a charity shop and it prompts an unexpected flood of memories? This happened to me when I chanced upon a copy of The book of thousand poems for the young and the very young. The dustjacket was unfamiliar but I opened the book and immediately remembered it vividly from my own childhood.
The book of a thousand poems had a certain romantic resonance for me even when I first encountered it as a primary school child because it wasn’t a new book even then. It was one of a handful of books my mother had kept from her own childhood in the 1950s: I also remember all four books in the Little Women sequence, Black Beauty, and the Susan Coolidge books about Katy. It was a chunky little black volume with a battered cover; my mother, who never throws anything out, may still have the original but undoubtedly it had lost its spine by the time my three siblings and I had finished with it. Its physical appearance added to the romance: solid and black, it was one of the books that was always used as a schoolbook when we played old-fashioned school, or as a spellbook when we played witches. Looking at this copy I see that it was first published in 1942, which would explain the soggy rationing-era paper which was used for my mother’s copy.
I bought the book, of course – £1.99, a bargain. I’m amazed to find how much of the poetry in it I remember. The poetry of your childhood sticks with you, of course. I think I can still recite the whole of Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum from memory; when I came across Don Paterson’s description of the poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”, it was Each Peach Pear Plum which first came to mind, with its neat form of looping rhyme and narrative.
The poems in The book of a thousand poems are of, shall we say, mixed quality. The book is divided into sections, starting with nursery rhymes (mostly familiar and traditional), and following that with ‘Poems for the very young’; ‘Fantasy and fairyland’; ‘The seasons’; ‘Flowers and trees’; ‘Fables and stories’; ‘National and love of country’; ‘Prayers, graces and thanksgivings’. No modern-day gritty realism here: ‘traditional’ (for which read conservative) values, Christianity, and a determination to limit children to childish subjects only: fairies, flowers, Christmas and Easter.
I was utterly charmed by this. I was a soppy child and found my left-wing, right-on parents unutterably prosaic; the values embodied in The book of a thousand poems seemed incredibly romantic and dashing to me even as I recognised that the poems in praise of the Union Jack and how ‘To be an English boy or girl/Is much the best of all’ were absolute tosh. The selection of rather saccharine prayers thrilled me; like Anna in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I spent a marvellous, if short, period as a secret believer in a family of atheists, devoutly reading my self-imposed catechism:
We thank thee, Heavenly Father,
For all the lovely spring,
For primroses and bluebells,
And little birds that sing. (Mary Anderson)
The prayer section has stuck less in my memory, though, than the nature poems. Some are famous: Blake’s The Tyger, short extracts from Hiawatha. I wasn’t literarily discerning at that age and was most fond of the kind of poems which anthropomorphised seasons or flowers:
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears! (Sir William Watson)
Little ladies, white and green,
With your spears about you,
Will you tell us where you’ve been
Since we lived without you? (L. Alma Tadema*)
Most of the poems are like that: small poems which fit at least two to a page, a tumpty-tumpty rhythm, a solid(ish) rhyming scheme, and a conscious and condescending focus on child-appropriateness. Some are much better than others, but the majority seem to have been written in the first half of the twentieth century by people who were ‘writing down’ to children, carefully making sure that nothing troubling or unpretty was offered to little innocent minds.
I read the whole book, though, many times over. I think what I got from it was the first inkling of the way poetry works, particularly with image and metaphor. The rhythms and assonances of the words never struck me (and don’t strike me now) as being particularly remarkable, but even the rather twee imagery of poppies dressed in their fluttering silken gowns and snow falling like feathers seemed beautiful and marvellous to me, and I wrote lots of poems in imitation.
Those poems are all lost now, sadly. But looking at some of the poems I still like, it’s clear that a striking image or a clever metaphor is still irresistible for me. I wonder how much my taste was guided by this rather unremarkable book?
I cried wolf in the pasture. No-one came
“This is the child,” they said, “who lied before,
who dreamt a wolf was scratching at her door,
and roused the town!” And so I took the blame.
I cried wolf in the night; they mocked my claim,
beat me and left me on the hard dirt floor
where I wept, cold and heartsick, bruised and sore,
knowing the beast they feared would come again.
My mind drifts out. A shadow on the moon,
a hunter in the night behind the storm,
I wait for the dark ending of the year.
See now, the window’s open, and the tune
the wind plays, raises hackles. I change form.
I am the wolf child. It is I they fear.
– Jan Sellers
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehre.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachsen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und word in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Lord, it is time. The summer was so long.
Now spread your shadow over the sundials,
and let the winds loose over the fields.
Make the last fruits swell to ripeness;
give them just two more southern days,
push them to perfection and chase
the last few drops of sweetness into the wine.
The one without a house cannot build one now.
The one who is alone must stay that way,
will wake, read, write long letters
and wander restlessly through the avenues
up and down, through the drifts of leaves.
[Image: Wald im Spätherbst by Caspar David Friedrich]
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Mathematik lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Daß zwei Stücke Brot mehr ist als eines
Das wirst du auch so merken.
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Französisch lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Dieses Reich geht unter. Und
Reibe du nur mit der Hand den Bauch und stöhne
Und man wird dich schon verstehen.
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Geschichte lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Lerne du deinen Kopf in die Erde stecken
Da wirst du vielleicht übrigbleiben.
Ja, lerne Mathematik, sage ich
Lerne Französisch, lerne Geschichte!
– Bertolt Brecht
My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That two bits of bread are more than one
You’ll notice anyway
My young son asks me: Should I learn French?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That empire is going under.
Just rub your hand across your belly and groan
And you’ll be understood all right.
My young son asks me: Should I learn history?
What for, I’m inclined to say. Learn to stick your head in the ground
Then maybe you’ll come through.
Yes, learn mathematics, I tell him
Learn French, learn history!
– trans. Sammy McLean
A very nice (and rather coquettish) wild boar, via the Guardian (George Monbiot’s piece on the re-introduction of wild boar to South-East England is interesting too). Thanks to the cohab for passing it on.