The colour of my day

As I've mentioned, 1963 was a big year for author deaths: Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, and, on the day John F Kennedy died, C.S. Lewis. Frost is one of my favourite poets. Plath I like, and I think if we'd known each other we could have been friends. But Lewis, for me, is on a shelf of his own. How do you describe a writer you've known since before you could read? Whose voice narrated your childhood and who furnished your imagination from his own? I'm loth to sound like one of those mad, starry-eyed Lewisites who run societies and newsletters and colleges in his honour (wouldn't he have hated that?), which is why I don't talk about him much in these pages. But I'd be lying if I said he hadn't influenced and shaped me more than any other writer I've ever read. The fiftieth anniversary of his death falls this November. Between now and then I would like to use the occasion to write about him, and try to say something of what he has meant to me. In particular, I'd like to draw attention to his poetry, which seems largely unknown and underrated. Today, then, a poem I've had humming in my head these last few days. Not his best or my favourite, but lovely. Lewis's life seemed so full of hardship and sacrifice and forebearance, it's nice to think of him having one unreasonably good day. 

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel’s transit roaring over and through my heart? 

My garden’s spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann’d and unplann’d miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers only are white.

Yet I –I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock’s chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.

As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one’s feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,

Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children’s tale. 

Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.

Jane Austen's private world

Pride and Prejudice, the world’s favourite novel, turned 200 last month. And while we’re contemplating its great age, it’s worth remembering that Jane Austen was 21 when she wrote it. It’s hard to name what it is about her novels, this one in particular, that makes them so enduringly appealing. They’re exquisitely observed, of course; nobody skewers a fop, a bore, a ninny, or a flirt like Austen could in one short sketch. They’re comic as well as dramatic and romantic. They’re full of moral marrow, memorable characters, beautifully drawn scenes and finely turned phrases. But I think above all, the reason they delight and intrigue us still is their exploration of a rich and complex inner life. 

Nothing is more often pointed out about Austen than that she turned away from the wider world of history and politics to write about the confined, unvarying world of a small domestic or parochial circle. In fact what she wrote about was not an outer world at all, large or small, but an inner world of immense dimension and substance. Where else but in a fully realised psychological interior do pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility, and persuasion take form? For Austen’s heroines, the stakes are self esteem, personal virtue, rationality and contentment, not the social or pecuniary rewards for which the shallow, morally compromised characters play. Mechanically, the novels resolve in marriages and other social maneuvres, but the real movement of each novel happens in inward reflection, realisation, self-knowledge, and self-command.

Think of Emma’s, (or Marianne’s), blinding realisation of her own error, almost simultaneous with the realisation of her true feelings; Elinor’s bargain with herself to keep Lucy’s secret and prize Edward’s honour above her own happiness. Think of Anne’s tender revelation of her steadfastness to Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth in that novel’s climactic scene. And think of Elizabeth compulsively re-reading Darcy’s letter: “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The letter is the novel’s turning point, and it’s not Wickham’s shortcomings but her own that shock her, and move her toward knowledge and love. It’s not a world of heroes and cads and dashing romances, but our admission to this private world of deep feeling, long suffering, painful reflection and dawning knowledge that makes these books so endlessly enjoyable. 

I dream of you walking

Today is our anniversary. My small act of commemoration comes from a poem by Kentucky farmer/writer Wendell Berry, “In the Country of Marriage.” These are the first three stanzas.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth's empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.