Tuesday, 19 May 2009

It is a father's tale

I had an email from Mardi Dungey today in response to what I wrote yesterday about early memories of poetry in school. She was making the perfectly valid point that the English Romantic Poets did not seem very relevant to her childhood in Tasmania.

They didn't seem that relevant to a council estate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne either, it has to be said.

This issue of whether these poets still have anything to say to us, comes up time and again. But I think good art is always relevant. Poetry has an ability to catch you unawares, emotionally - regardless of when it was written. It is similar to music in this respect. It won't do it to everyone at every time, but when it does, it's startling.

I was painting the kitchen in our old house in Norfolk some years ago. It was a job I hated - painting woodwork, with its multiple coats of primer, undercoat and two coats of eggshell. To alleviate the tedium, I had the radio on. I think it was Poetry Please on Radio 4. The reader read Coleridge's The Nightingale. It was a poem I knew (I have a bit of a thing about Coleridge) and yet it had never meant anything to me, particularly.

On it went, until it reached the last section and then it hit me. I was a father myself now. I had been impatient with my own small son the day before and shouted at him. I knew too of Coleridge's damaged childhood and the troubled, depressive addict he would become in later life. I knew what a poor father (and husband) he would actually turn out to be. The hope that his son will have a happier life and a cheerier disposition (and the pain that is at the back of that wish) is heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously.

The first few lines have that Farewell! O Warbler! with its crazy exclamation marks and I guess these things do put people off. But get past that.

Read from line five, where he begins, My dear babe and you will hear Coleridge talking to you across the centuries, heart to heart. You'll see him standing in that midnight orchard plot, his baby son in his arms. You'll see the moonlight in those tears. If you are anything like me, you might have a few of your own by the end.

All parents have these special, diamond-bright moments with their children. How many of us would be able to set them down so well? That's Samuel Taylor Coleridge talking to you - not a Great Romantic Poet, but a flawed human being who happened to be able to write. . .

Farewell! O Warbler! till tomorrow eve,
And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
And now for our dear homes.That strain again!
Full fain it would delay me! My dear babe,
Who, capable of no articulate sound,
Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
How he would place his hand beside his ear,
His little hand, the small forefinger up,
And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
To make him Nature's play-mate. He knows well
The evening-star; and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!
It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy. Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell.