In 1987 I was on holiday with my family in Cornwall and on the way back from a drive with my wife, youngest son (a football-obsessed thirteen year old) and new baby daughter happened upon a sign to St Juliot’s Church and dived down a narrow lane, just as Hardy must have come more than a century before to find his Emma, the girl with the corn-coloured ringlets who once and later was all to him.
A grey and silver evening, wind in the sycamores; the square-towered battlemented church empty except for a woman arranging flowers, who cooed over the baby while I slipped outside and went down the path to a stile made of a thin slab of slate upright like the blade of a guillotine, and stood there looking at what to him must have been a familiar sight: a field of rough grass, sloping down to a line of trees, and beyond that the land rising again, long-shadowed and suddenly golden as the sun dropped below the cloud line, then turned back to see the churchyard with its silent headstones and nettles and an ivy-covered stump, that perhaps to him had been a sapling. My son came up and seeing my mood was very understanding: ‘I know what it means to you, I’d feel like that if we went somewhere Bryan Robson and the Man. United team had trained together.’
I’m not sure that it’s proper to equate a mere poet with the mighty Captain Marvel, but yes, that was the general idea. Anyway, here Hardy looks back wistfully on that first time together in a poem of 1913 in which he is drawn to the place and that remembered first happiness despite the doubts and pain that it now occasions in him.
A Dream Or No
Why go to Saint-Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?
Some strange necromancy
But charmed me to fancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.
Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.
And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.
So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.
But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life’s sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?
Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?
A lot of wet weather lately – one of our local ponds that was bone-dry in October is now brimming over and home once again to a family of mallards. For me the poet of rain has to be Edward Thomas, especially in this piece, written in early 1916 while Thomas was undergoing military training in a camp near Romford. This is actually one of the poems where I part company with Thomas spiritually, since I have always rather liked the sound of rain at night. I remember lying awake one night in the Ogwen Valley in North Wales, listening to a torrential downpour on the roof above my bunk, thinking how it would be falling all over the dark countryside, turning the already wet soil to a black peaty sponge, and thinking how it would overflow, because the country could take no more: the trees had taken up great draughts, and the mosses could drink no more, and the rocks would have nothing to do with it, being no obedient chalks and limestones but hard grits and slates. So droplet would turn to drip, and drip to puddle, and puddle to rill, and rill to rivulet, until the hillsides would be alive with moving water… for some reason I found an exquisite pleasure in the thought of that soft wearing, that sleeking and slicking, gentler than ice but just as powerful in the end, and certainly the rain seemed part of an immense aliveness rather than anything to inspire thoughts of death.
But now for Thomas’s very different take on the matter…
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
I confess that there is much in the work of more recent American poets that I feel not quite attuned to, as if it were written in a language that is clearly more or less English yet whose words, as in a dream, won’t quite come into focus. But I do like this poem by May Swenson (1913-1989), that reflects the difficulties that those of us most rooted in the physical have in conceiving of an existence independent of our body: our fleshly house, our faithful steed, our good bright questing hound.
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?