My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth

Rainbow

(painting is a detail from a larger work, The Age of Reason)

Whenever someone in the family mentions a rainbow, my husband launches into this poem. (It’s now inevitably become a sort of family tradition—wait for it….) And today we celebrate the fortuitous birthday of its author, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), born in Cumberland, England.

Is it obligatory for English poets to have had unhappy childhoods? Wordsworth’s was no exception—his father, mysteriously, lived apart from the family, and when the children’s mother died, instead of taking them in, he parcelled them out between boarding schools and a series of unpleasant misery-inducing relatives. Wordsworth wasn’t reunited with his beloved favorite sister Dorothy for years. The highlight of his dismal schooling (besides introducing him to his future wife) was the holidays, which he consistently spent going long walks in nature and writing poetry.

At twenty Wordsworth set off on a walking tour of Italy, Switzerland, and post-Revolutionary France, where he became a passionate advocate of the republican cause. In France he formed a liaison with a local girl, but the relationship was discouraged by her parents (despite his having fathered a daughter whom he visited and supported rather erratically over the years). He returned home alone, disillusioned by the increasing violence of the revolution and England’s violent response to it, aimless, without profession, depressed.

This dark period was finally relieved by a legacy from Raisley Calvert, a sculptor and loyal former classmate, that allowed Wordsworth to support himself while writing poetry. May we all be so fortunate in our old school friends! With a steady income, he was able to form a household with Dorothy and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge that Dorothy termed “three persons with one soul.”

It was a creative partnership that marked the birth of English Romanticism. Inspired by one another, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced innovative, experimental, controversial poetry, and Dorothy’s letters (luckily for literary historians) documented the process. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but his rapture was borne within measured frameworks, among them the sonnet form, which Wordsworth reawakened after its long disuse. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads (“Tintern Abbey,” “The Idiot Boy,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and Romanticism was up and running.

The Romantic movement emphasized the value of individual experience, the contributions of ethnic traditions and folklore, the primal power of wild landscape and the wonders of nature, a consciousness of the infinite, and the use of imagination and the senses as a path to spiritual truth. It was a break from the formal elegance, polish, dignity and conservative restraint that characterized the formerly hot movement, Neoclassicism. Instead of, say, a series of elevated dramatic couplets on the epic semi-divine hero of ancient tragedy, we have a lyrical meditation on the soul-response to a sea of daffodils, or to the loss of a much-loved child. A personal perspective on life, the natural world, and mortality.

Yes…quite a break! taken up by Blake, Scott, and Göethe, followed by a whole string of younger Romantic poets and writers (Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hugo, Dumas, Pushkin) and the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) and later the Victorians (Browning, Tennyson). Where would it end?? Culture as well as politics seems to be an ongoing struggle between the poles of head and heart, with adherents of each movement certain of having achieved a universally valid means of expression. But that is a subject for another post.

The partnership foundered on a falling-out with Coleridge, a pretty gloomy fellow, as one would expect of someone who writes a lengthy baffling poem about a curse-bearing dead albatross. Wordsworth and Dorothy moved on, settling eventually in the beautiful Lake District, that region abundant in literary inspiration and indomitable tourists. Joined by Robert Southey, the two became known as the “Lake Poets,” and Wordsworth married and proceeded to have five children. A sizable household. But a household that, as any other, had its share of suffering, with the drowning of William and Dorothy’s brother, and the deaths of three of the children. Wordsworth’s poetry grew more sober, restrained, and elegiac. In fact in his later years, while serving as England’s poet laureate, he was criticized by younger writers for his increasing conservatism. Suffering and loss does shade and temper youthful abandon.

Even if you can’t recite a Romantic poem in entirety, you know that your head is filled with lovely memorable fragments (“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still…” “I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar…”) that are part of our literary legacy and that emerge in moments of wonder and joy. For the fragments, for the poetry, for the consciousness that shaped them, and for my husband’s regular recital of the rainbow poem, thank you, William Wordsworth, and Happy Birthday.


i carry your heart with me

My dear husband, celebrating Passover a couple of years ago with friends. I chose this picture from my sketchbook because we are once again entering the season. And also because I think he looks really good in a yarmulke. (I hope that’s not sacrilegious.) He was diagnosed with a heart condition since then and yesterday suffered an episode that sent us to the ER for most of the day. He’s in the hospital now, under observation on a new medication. Please send your kind healing thoughts his way.

JimmyPassover

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

—e.e. cummings

CakeChocCurls2Maura

CakeSprinklesLyle

Loveliest of Trees

CherryTreeTidalBasin2

Every year about now I start muttering this poem to myself. And I ponder how suitable it was that its author, Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), was born on this day, in the season of the lovely, evanescent, and melancholy cherry blossom.

Housman was one of seven children of a rather depressed solicitor in Fockburg, England who had a tendency to invest heavily in failed inventions. No wonder he was depressed. Housman’s health was frail, and in school he was subject to bullying. As many were, in pretty much any fine olde boys’ public school. His beloved mother’s death when he was twelve was a severe blow. However, as a student he showed great promise, and he won a scholarship to Oxford, where he took up classics.

Although he was brilliant, Housman was unwilling to expend much energy on what didn’t interest him, and he much preferred his studies of the Latin poets to philosophy and ancient history. He failed to pass his final exams, and there is speculation that the cause was not only neglect of his studies but also the disappointing (and lifelong) attachment he had developed to his school roommate, Moses Jackson, which never went beyond friendship (Jackson being heterosexual).

Housman’s failure to pass his studies made it impossible to enter a position in academia, but Jackson, who couldn’t give him True Love, obtained for Housman through his connections the next best thing—a Steady Government Job. (And that sounds really attractive in the current economy.) So for the next ten years Housman was a London Patent Office Clerk by day and classical scholar by night, studying Greek and Roman classics independently and writing articles for learned journals, gradually gaining an impressive reputation that led to a professorship in Latin, first at University College, London, and then Cambridge University, where he eventually published several volumes of his meticulous textual analysis and translation.

But do we remember Housman for his brilliant Latin scholarship? No, we do not. Unless we are brilliant Latin scholars ourselves. No, this clerk by day and scholar by night was somehow finding the time to write evocative lyrical poetry. In 1896 he assembled a collection of 63 of his poems and went looking for a publisher. After being rejected by several, he decided to publish the collection, titled A Shropshire Lad, at his own expense, surprising his colleagues, who evidently had had no idea of Housman’s other interest. The book sold slowly at first, but as musicians set some of his ballad-like poems to music, its reputation grew, and with the advent of the First World War, his themes of death and loss struck a chord in the public. It became one of the most popular volumes of serious poetry ever published.

Apparently an aloof, intimidating professor with a sarcastic wit, Housman was not an easy companion, and when Jackson married, he did not even send Housman word. Housman gradually became increasingly reclusive. But when Jackson was gravely ill in Canada, Housman decided to assemble his unpublished poems so that his old friend could read them before he died. These were published as Last Poems in 1922, 36 years after A Shropshire Lad. One more collection was published posthumously.

And that’s it. What Housman created as a sideline (“I am not a poet by trade; I am a professor of Latin”) has become an inextricable and unforgettable component of the body of English poetry. Housman said once, “The emotional part of my life was over when I was thirty-five years old.” Yet his poetry, at once spare and vivid, is imbued with feeling, without being sentimental. What he did not permit himself in life he has given us on the page.

So go for a walk under the pink and drifting petals, and wish Alfred Housman a Happy Birthday.

A Love Story

BarrettPost

How is this for a romantic tale. Intellectual semi-invalid is still living at home in seclusion in her mid-thirties, quietly writing poetry and essays. Her published, widely read poems catch the attention of a handsome fellow-poet, six years her junior, who writes her a lengthy letter that says, among other things:

I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett… so into me it has gone, and part of me it has become… and I love you too.

Thus began a correspondence—reluctant on her side, urgent on his, between Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), whose birthday it is today, and Robert Browning—that culminated in their growing mutual attachment and eventual secret elopement. Like many (all?) romantic tales, it had its dark underside, this one of slavery, paternal tyranny, multiple sad deaths, and mysterious illness.

Barrett was the first-born in a large prosperous family in Coxhoe, England, whose income derived partly from slave-worked plantations in Jamaica (perhaps this was related to Barrett’s later abolitionist stance). She was educated at home and demonstrated in childhood a gift for language: writing poetry, reading Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante, and learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (incorporated later into her poetry) sufficiently well to take up translation and analysis. To these she later added Italian, German, and Spanish.

But by age twenty she was already declining physically from some unknown, untreatable cause. The deaths of her mother and grandmother took their toll on her, and the accidental drowning of a favorite brother made her a recluse in her misery. In the meantime the abolition of slavery in England brought an end to the Jamaica income and obliged the family to live simply. Throughout all this she continued to write and publish essays and poetry, passionate, deeply felt, finely crafted, expressive of political and social as well as personal themes. And despite her seclusion, she corresponded widely with other writers and scholars.

Thus Browning was smitten. When he finally whisked Barrett off secretly to tie the knot and honeymoon in Italy, her father disinherited her—as he did each of his children who chose to marry. Yikes! Some family therapy would not have been amiss here.

After their marriage Barrett showed Browning the sonnets she had been writing, the most famous of which (not the one above, but number XLIII) has been widely reproduced and even (gasp) parodied. The couple stayed in Italy and, despite their late start, Barrett/Browning gave birth to a little Robert when she was 43. So their tale concludes probably as happily as any—with the two of them madly in love, raising their babe, writing poetry together, respected, reasonably comfortable, and in ITALY besides. Happy Birthday (and apologies), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with gratitude not only for the poetry but for the love story.


Morning Has Broken

Today is the birthday of Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), born in London, England, into a rather bohemian musical, literary, theatrical family. The lucky girl. She was delicate, and so was homeschooled among shelves crammed full of books—fairy and folk tales, history and mythology. She began writing quite young and was encouraged (of course); in her teens she collaborated with her brothers on their theatre productions; by age 19 she sold her first fairy tale.

Farjeon went on to write a range of literature for children: stories, history verses, plays, and lots of poems, among them the one above written in 1931 to accompany an old Gaelic melody and later popularized by folk singer Cat Stevens and other musicians. Her work abounds in wit, unexpected turns of phrase and plot, magic, humor, and nonsense. She is probably best known for her collection The Little Bookroom and the Martin Pippin stories, but if you have a little girl who loves to jump rope and she has NOT read Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, you must drop everything and run straight to the library together to check it out. (If it has not yet been pulled from the library shelf and sold on Amazon. See Each Day post 2/11/10.)

Japanese animation lovers, take note. The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon, an Eleanor Farjeon story originally published in 1955, is presently being adapted for a Japanese/Korean animation feature, scheduled for release in spring 2011. Now wouldn’t that surprise Eleanor.

CakeChocCurlsSara