Saturday, October 10, 2009

`Simple, Homely, True and Tender'

Without realizing it I inherited, without question, the arrogance of Modernism. Pound, Eliot and Joyce represented uncontested victories over – what? Sentimentality, vagueness and verbal effusion, I suppose. There’s something to this, of course, and the latter two writers remain among those I most respect, but I disposed of too many novels and poems, unexamined, in the process. Why can’t I enjoy Tennyson and a hundred other poets whose work I dismissed, when young, impressionable and less literate than I thought, as fossils?

In the January 1951 issue of Poetry, Elizabeth Bishop reviewed Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages. First published in 1923 (one year after Ulysses and The Waste Land), the anthology was edited by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), the English poet, novelist and writer for children. Bishop opens her review with a declaration of quietly unfashionable defiance:

“Although much of the poetry I happen to admire is not to be found in it, I shall think this is the best anthology I know of.”

I had never touched Come Hither before reading Bishop’s review, collected in Poems, Prose, and Letters. There’s a quaintness to de la Mare’s selection, to the introduction – Bishop calls it “a de la Mareish allegorical account of how he discovered poetry as a boy” – and to the woodblock engravings at the head of each chapter, that may be off-putting at first even to readers of good will. It’s a book for children, but the sort of children they hardly make anymore. Best of all are de la Mare’s notes, almost 300 pages of them, included at the back of the book in a section called “About and Round About.” Of the notes, Bishop writes

“…the book is well worth buying for them alone. It is a Luna Park of stray and straying information. He quotes journals, letters, samplers, gravestones, and his friends; then throws in a few recipes.”

It’s a ragbag of enthusiastic learning. De la Mare, for example, includes in the chapter titled “Mother, Home and Sweetheart” two poems by William Cowper, “Lines on Receiving His Mother’s Picture” and “The Poplar-Field.” I’ve rediscovered Cowper in recent months and read him often. The copse of poplars behind the house where I grew up is now a grove of rotting stumps overshadowed by hardwoods that were saplings half a century ago. I miss seeing the poplar’s buttery yellow leaves in October. Here’s Cowper’s poem:

“The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer, and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

“Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

“The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

“My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast, and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

“'Tis a sight to engage me, if any thing can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see,
Have a being less durable even than he.”

A conventional English poem for the 18th century, with intimations of the Romantics soon to arrive. The syntax is relaxed, discursive, almost conversational. “My fugitive years” is memorable, a glimpse of Cowper the troubled soul. The final stanza reads powerfully for any reader who accepts that more than half his life has been lived. Here’s what de la Mare writes in his notes to the poem:

“The first and third stanzas of this poem were (and are) my particular favourites, and especially the second line in each. Such poems are like wayside pools, or little well-springs of water. It does not matter how many wayfarers come thither to quench their thirst, there is abundance for all.

“The craftsmanship of the poem seems simplicity itself. But the closer we examine it the more clearly we see the intricate devices that are responsible for its triumph. To express truth, and to express one’s heart, need extreme care and skill – though the intense wish to do so may supply them almost without effort.

“Listen here to the lingering chime of the vowels: `Nor Ouse on his bosom,’ `The poplars are felled; farewell’; to the echoing of retreat, screen, heat, scene, sweet of the third stanza. How delightful throughout is the ease to throat and ear, to mind and spirit, effected by the interweaving alliteration of the f’s and v’s – felled, farewell, faint, field fled, afford, before, fugitive, fading away at last in turf, if, life, grove and even. The z’s too and the m’s – melody charmed me – and finally the dream and durable in the last stanza.

“Not that this particular poem is either profound, subtle, or elaborate. It is simple, homely, true and tender. But it could not have proved itself so (and particularly in this particular metre) if the words, which are its all, had been clumsily put together, ill-matched, and art-less.”

There’s little to argue with here, unless our supposed sophistication gets in the way. A poem is not a war with past or future poems. Sometimes we’re too sophisticated for our own pleasure.


An Anxious Anglican said...

And the volume is available online, free at

Jack said...

I've always enjoyed de la Mare's "Behold This Dreamer!" as well, but wouldn't mention it to anyone for fear of being thought "unsophisticated."