Tuesday, November 27, 2012

`To the World's End I Thought I'd Go'

As usual, the dream was tantalizing in what it left out. The landscape was Northern and autumnal, obscured by fog or heavy mist. The trees were bare, the ground muddy. I sensed I was behind a farm house, walking toward the barns and sheds. I opened the door to one on my left and on a shelf I found a row of bird nests, each about the size of a child’s birthday cake. They were built of twigs and grass but also of mud, like a swallow’s. They seemed in disrepair and I saw no birds or eggs, yet I sensed they were inhabited, despite the door having been closed. The dream ends there, and it left me with a disproportionate impression of desolation. 

I enjoy dreams the way I enjoy most movies – I don’t make much of them and I don’t expect them to tell me anything about me or the world. They’re like the lost and found, a jumble of castoffs. Analysis seems redundant and pretentious, and seldom can I trace a dream’s origin to the previous day’s events. Most feel like collages assembled from all periods of my life. This one was different. Sunday evening I’d been reading John Clare, who knew more about the natural world, in particular plants and birds, than any of the other Romantics. Clare was unschooled but deeply learned. 

Like many boys, he collected eggs and nests, a pastime now properly condemned, though I did the same. One could assemble a substantial anthology of poems by Clare devoted at least in part to bird nests. One that I read on Sunday is “The World’s End”: 

“To hunt birds' nests on summer morns,
So far my leisure seemed to run,
I've paused to wonder where I'd got
And thought I'd got beyond the sun;
It seemed to rise another way,
The very world's end seemed as near;
Some strange bush pointed where it lay,
So back I turned for very fear
With eager haste and wonder-struck,
Pursued as by a dreaded spell,
Till home—Oh, could I write a book,
I thought, what wonders I could tell!
And when again I left the town
To the world's end I thought I'd go
And o'er the brink just peep adown
To see the mighty depths below.” 

I had read this poem before, though it hadn’t left a lasting impression. Something about the ending is horrifying. Consider the distance traversed in sixteen lines, from a fond boyhood memory to the abyss. To a mind like Clare’s, so tormented, gentle and observant, everything might turn abruptly to nothing.

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