I like this poem very much, even though it inspires in me considerable pangs of guilt concerning my father’s writing-desk. This was made of some dark wood, with a flap that let down on brass lopers, and many pigeonholes at the top where he kept his papers; these were of no interest to me, but below the flap were two shelves behind leaded lights which held the books from his own childhood, and tucked away behind them was a full set of Arthur Mee’s ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’. So it was that I cut my reading teeth on a combination of sturdy Victorian fare – Captain Marryat, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley, Talbot Baines Reed – together with a science that had no notion of relativity, DNA and continental drift, a history innocent of the Second World War and a geography in which most of the world was still coloured red. I am still trying to catch up.
The desk could have been mine when my mother died, but we had little room, and even I, not known for my sensitivity in matters of décor, could see that it did not ‘go with’ our other furniture, so I passed on it, and consequently don’t see as often as I might the man who spent so many hours seated there and the small boy sprawled on his stomach on the carpet nearby. We don’t have much time for ghosts in our lives these days; fortunately for us, Hardy did.
I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers.
But well I know how it is with me
I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.
On the clock’s dull dial a foggy finger,
Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
In the wont of a moth on a moth on a summer night,
Creeps to my sight.
On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing –
As whilom – just over the strings by the nut,
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
In airy quivers, as if it would cut
The plaintive gut.
And I see a face by that box for tinder,
Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder
Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
Or goes out stark.
Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,
The world has no use for one today
Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!
He should not continue in this stay,
But sink away.