As we begin our long crawl through 2017, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ comes to mind:
“I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires…”
Apparently I’m not alone in remembering it at this time of year (it was a newspaper’s ‘poem of the week’ at the end of 2009). My recollection of it is however homage to the way in which my English teacher brought it to life. What I didn’t realise was how long those lines would stick with me .
This soundtrack of half-forgotten lines that I once studied have punctuated events throughout the year and throughout my life. But I only became conscious of this when school was long behind me. Now every time I recall them, I’m further cementing them in my memory.
Each birthday, Cleopatra’s words from Shakespeare’s eponymous play ring in my ears: “age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”. Whilst I’m doing more withering these days, I’m hoping that the trade-off is the infinite variety of a life well-lived.
Unfortunately, I’m also haunted by Philip Larkin’s ‘Let This be The Verse’. It warns: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, And add some extra, just for you”. Here’s hoping that as a parent myself now, it’s not entirely prophetic.
So if you are an English teacher, lamenting whether your pupils will ever remember their texts, or will ever be able to relate such texts to modern times, you can also be reassured – once they remember, they may never forget.
As I learnt so many years ago, Hardy wrote The Darkling Thrush at the turn of the century to describe how the chirping song of a thrush brought hope during a desolate winter. Whilst there was no frost on my garden on New Year’s Day, one hundred and seventeen years later, our crisp white lawn on recent mornings has evoked his words once more.
All we need is that birdsong – hurry up Spring!