Friday, 19 March 2010

The consolation of another’s words


I have been silent, on this blog, for a while, because swarming events have, for once, left a man who likes to be a man of words bereft of them.
This week I spent some hours holding the bruised and purple hand of a 95-year-old lady in a hospital bed. She told me she was close to death. That probably is true, but how close, I do not know. After all, we can’t (or shouldn’t?) control the gates of time, although she opened them for me.
Anyway, at some point as an evening gathered grey around the place, between gasps for breath she murmured from memory this poem, by William Butler Yeats.
On the train back to London I spent an hour or so memorising it myself, which seemed both an act of devotion, and a duty, and a foolishness.
Make of its alchemy and symbols what you may – and I am now trying with some intensity to muddle through them – but I think you will agree that the cut in time and space between the second and third verses is one of the most dramatic and poignant ever accomplished by a poet.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Footnote, March 23. My mother died at five minutes past two this morning. The news came just after eight, as I was setting off for an appointment. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - I had already pushed into my overcoat pocket an edition of Yeats (published in 1962, when she was 48). As I walked I opened the book at random, and these lines caught my eye, from a poem called "Under Saturn":

... Although my wits have gone
On a fantastic ride, my horse's flanks are spurred
By childish memories...

Footnote 2, June 12, 2010. Last week’s visit to Eire had unique resonance, given the events this blog describes. I write elsewhere about the trip to Coole, where Lady Gregory lived and nourished the genius of Yeats – but on the path to the Lake there we passed a board on which were printed some lines the poet wrote in celebration of (and perhaps sketched while within) Coole’s “seven woods”...
“...Dim Pairc-na-tarav, where enchanted eyes
Have seen immortal, mild, proud shadows walk
Dim Inchy wood, that hides badger and fox
And marten-cat, and borders that old wood
Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood:
Seven odours, seven murmurs, seven woods.
I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes,
Yet dreamed that beings happier than men
Moved round me in the shadows...”
Foolishly, I didn’t note down the first line. Back in England, I riffled vainly back and forth through my old copy of the Collected Poems until, at last, I decided to email the Park, explaining that just I couldn’t find the verses. Charmingly, within a few hours, the supervisor, Hilda Mac Lochlainn had replied:
Dear Mr Wintle
I am glad you enjoyed your visit to Coole. The poem you mention is a prefatory poem to "The Shadowy Waters" 1906. First line is "I walked among the seven woods of Coole:" I hope you have more luck this time.
Kind regards
Hilda

Just after midnight last night, waiting for my son to come home, I was reading about The Shadowy Waters in a book called The Identity of Yeats, by Richard Ellman, when I came across this extract from Yeats’ diary:
“Apple blossoms are symbols of dawn and of air and of the earth and of resurrection in my system...”
So I have decided to replace the photograph of apple blossom at the top of this piece with a portrait of my mother as she was when young.

Monday, 1 March 2010

On being fully platformed, and other experiences


I found a new verb, this weekend. To platform, or to be platformed. Picked it up on the 11:06 from Paddington to Castle Cary.
We drew up, unwontedly, just outside Reading, and if there was any possibility of hearing, locally, a single blackbird singing, or even, farther and farther, all the birds of Berkshire, it was obliterated by the guard’s announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, it looks as if we’re going to be held outside the station waiting for a platform. Please do not attempt to leave the train until we are fully platformed and stationary within the station.”
To platform. To shape like a plat. Which is, I discover, a map or a plan, or a variant of plait, as in braid. Or, better, the French word, one half of plat-du-jour.
I think, therefore, that to platform is to imagine the dish you’d most like to eat at your next meal, and to platform fully is to realise in your imagination not just the dish, but the place in which you’d most like to eat it.
So as the train leaves Reading and gathers speed under darkening skies, I am elsewhere, sitting in the sunshine by Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy. Nearby, a man angles for and catches a trout, which he cleans and fills with almonds, olives and chives, then griddles over a wood fire while his wife brings out a salver of golden potatoes and green beans, sautéed in butter, sage and garlic. And a glass of Prosecco. And we listen to the quiet applause of waves through shingle.
Outside the train, the sky fills with clouds like rags soaked in sooty water. In a field is a harrow, rusty and bearded with dead grey foliage. A ditch looks as if it’s been filled with black glass, which shatters as the squall arrives. The colours of the trees – the pale green moss on the bark of beech and sycamore, the brown-purple of the alders’ fruits and catkins, the yellow of the willow wands – seem as if drawn from the soil of graveyards, and for a full minute I glimpse and am gripped by all the terrors of the endless and abysmal dark.
Stop it. Look away. Read your book...
“The mind in apprehending also experiences sensations which properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone. These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely offspring of the mind.
“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent, the nightingale for its song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind.
“Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”

This is from the philosopher A N Whitehead, quoted by the inestimable Tom Paulin in his superb study, Thomas Hardy, the Poetry of Perception. And sunlight falls on the page, and I look up, and now the same colours sparkle on beeches, sycamores, alders and willows as if their roots were sunk into boxes of jewellery.
A woman walks down the carriage aisle, presumably on her way to the buffet, dressed in a floor-length evening gown – hoops of blue and white which make her look like an animated vase.
The week has been studded with similar moments. It could have been staged by Fellini. On Tuesday we had lunch in an elegant gastropub and three convinced and convincing chavs came in, enemies all of the razor and partisans of the unlaundered tracksuit, with two bull terriers, one brindled and one black.
The chavs ordered a bottle of champagne, and the dogs copulated noisily in the middle of the room. As they disengaged, as if on cue, enter, in single file, two women, identically dressed in navy blue, pushing identical prams.
When, leaving Castle Cary on Saturday, we reached our destination, a hospice which stands, as it were, on the very lip of the abyss which had roared up around me a few hours earlier, I was soothed and intrigued by its Zen-like calm and practicality, and the gardens in which streams, and fountains playing over mirror-bright steel spheres, and bird tables and squirrel runs, had been arranged to be visible from every room.
The trip home on Sunday was a muddle and a bore. The 09:36 from Castle Cary was suddenly cancelled. The promised “alternative transport” which was to take us to catch the 10:53 from Westbury never arrived. I hitched a lift with a kind family who were delivering a friend to the station, but at Westbury, after being advertised as “on time” and announced as “arriving,” the 10:53 was cancelled as well, and we were put in troop train conditions on some local carriages to pick up a Paddington service at Bath.
In London, the Central Line wasn’t starting before Marble Arch, so I walked there. Cold afternoon, and raining again. Hunched and hooded, I did something which my superstitious self would normally forbid: I trod on the stone which commemorates the site of Tyburn Tree.
These are chillier times than I expected.
If you got this far, thanks for your company. The picture at the top, by the way, seemed appropriate. It’s one I took a few weeks back of the place on Hampstead Heath where I met the woman who wanted to see the ghost of William Blake, which (or whom?), as I reported just before Christmas, I wondered if I’d seen somewhere else the day before.