facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
Every year, I resist the approach of winter.
There is always a morning, early in September, when I step outside the back door to find a delicate web stretched between the stems of dying plants in the garden, with a small black-and-brown resident lurking at the centre – the first autumn garden spider. With it comes a definite chill in the air – and from that shivery moment on, I am trying to hold back the encroaching darkness simply by force of wishing it may not be so.
Sadly, my wishful thinking is not powerful enough to halt the carousel ride of the earth around the sun. Like every other helpless human, I’m just holding on tight while the great wheel keeps turning. As I watch the light fail earlier each evening, and pull ever thicker clothes from the back of the cupboard, the link with summer months gets more and more tenuous.
Compensation comes in the form of autumn colours, of course. The beauty of this season easily rivals that of spring. But there’s no escaping the fact that the golden leaves are dying leaves, a last flash of glory before bare branches are exposed to the frost.
It’s all very depressing – that is, until 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night. This time when the annual extravaganza of firework displays takes place is always the moment when, finally, I agree to face winter head-on.
Red, green, gold, silver and, best of all, purple flashes defy the dark skies. A blazing bonfire defies the cold wind. Every fizz, boom and whistle gives a two-fingered salute to gloom.
Even better, Guy Fawkes Night gives permission to think ahead to sparkling fairy lights, scented candles and hot mulled wine – all the warm, comforting accompaniments to Christmas. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
This year, I’ve bought a bright red winter coat. I shall wear it for the first time to our local fireworks display, and stop wishing for summer.
seven feet tall
valiantly holds the field
against the creeping shadows of
Three years ago, a packet of Californian poppy seeds, tipped nonchalantly into my flowerbed, yielded a passable crop of quite ordinary (dare I say, boring) plain cream and yellow flowers.
However, it turned out that the packet had included a flamboyant intruder – an Oriental, its deep purple heart surrounded by scarlet petals with frilly edges. There was just one bloom, and when it died I shook out the seeds from the pod, kept them in a brown envelope over the winter and sowed them the following year. Nothing happened. By the year after, I’d forgotten them, thinking they were dead.
This year – surprise! One oriental poppy sprang up from the earth. It flowered, again and again, each bloom staying no more than two days before the petals fell. It seemed a waste of such beauty, to last so short a time.
But it made me think of a poem by D.H. Lawrence, called ‘Fidelity’, contrasting flowers and gemstones. Of flowers he says:
O flowers they fade because they are moving swiftly;
a little torrent of life
leaps up to the summit of the stem, gleams,
turns over round the bend
of the parabola of curved flight,
sinks, and is gone, like a comet curving into the invisible.
O flowers, they are all the time travelling
like comets, and they come into our ken
for a day, for two days, and withdraw, slowly vanish again.
And we, we must take them on the wing, and let them go.
He might easily have been talking about my Oriental poppies. There really is a parabolic curve in the stem, where it bends over and ends in a hanging bud. Then the ‘torrent of life’ bursts into a spectacular flash of red. 36 hours later it’s just a naked seed pod, looking embarrassed to be on show, while the frilly-edged petals lie on the ground like feathers from a firebird.
I was lucky enough to catch sight of a shooting star in the Perseid meteor shower earlier this month. It had zigzagged across the eastern sky and disappeared in a split second. A comet, of the sort that D.H. Lawrence mentions, might be visible in the sky for a few weeks, even though it is actually travelling at great speed.
He’s right, though – we can’t hold on to a flower for ever. Its fleeting nature is part of its beauty, its essence as a flower. A photo can’t match the reality, and when winter comes and the flowerbed is bare, its brilliance will be almost unimaginable.
For this year, I must ‘take it on the wing, and let it go’. But you can be sure I’ll have kept plenty of seeds in a brown paper envelope.
William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? I first started asking myself that question when I read a small selection of his poems for my O Level English exam, and then a few more for A Level. A recent visit to his home, Dove Cottage in Grasmere, central to the beautiful Cumbrian Lake District, got me thinking again.
I remember being both enchanted and suitably scared by the part of ‘The Prelude’ where he describes the Gothic horror of seeing a huge cliff-face rising before his eyes as he rows a stolen boat across a lake. The simple, poignant Lucy poems, about a young woman who lives and dies unnoticed by most of the world, were just as emotionally confusing. To read this stuff was like opening doors in a fascinating but creepy old house. Being a slightly depressive child and teenager, there was something I recognised in this melancholy beauty. I identified with it and felt its pull – but wished not to.
When I read now, as a happier adult, I can see that his constant focus on solitude is what makes me inwardly shiver. I think of poor dead Lucy, who ‘dwelt among the untrodden ways’. In the aftermath of the boat-stealing, his mind is overcast by ‘a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion’. And to top it all, we have ‘The Solitary Reaper’, singing her songs of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ alone in an echoing valley.
Wordsworth insists on painting a picture of solitude even when, in fact, it wasn’t so. I learnt from the Dove Cottage tour guide that although, in his most famous poem, he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, the inspiration for those words actually came from a lakeside walk accompanied by his sister Dorothy. He was no hermit: he shared that small home with his wife, his sister and his sister-in-law. Their many visitors included Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He had five children. He seems to have been quite a gregarious fellow, fully involved in life, and yet his poetry tells a different story.
Setting these gripes aside, though, there are things I admire him for. He wrote mostly about ordinary everyday life, not old myths or abstract intellectual ideas. He was a keen observer of the natural world on his doorstep and of the way it made him feel. He was mindful, living in the moment, in touch with his emotional responses to people and places and objects; and his skill in painting word-pictures that pierce straight through into a reader’s heart and mind was unsurpassed. All of these qualities I can appreciate, being a haiku poet myself.
What’s more, I have to admit that, for a poet I ‘don’t like’, his words are as memorable as those of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence or Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom I do like. Whenever I stand on a bridge overlooking the River Thames in London, the words from his sonnet, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, are right there at the front of my mind. The daffodils poem is one of the very few that I can recite from memory in its entirety (that is, as long as I say it in the rhythm of the song I learnt at school), and I always think of it in spring-time. Somewhere inside me, the melancholy teenager can still recognise a sympathetic mind.
So, William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? The answer’s yes – and no.