An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
with portraitures of huntsmen, hawk, and hound [....]
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from "Chaucer"
First love? Who knows. Something in the mother tongue, I suppose. What I remember is my mother singing: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do! I'm half crazy over the love of you. So she was, I knew, half crazy over the love of me. Or Hello Patsy Fagan, you're the apple of my eye. So I was the apple of her eye. A strange thing. Or, You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey. That was the sunshine coming through the clouds over the back garden. Somehow, it seemed, I was in those songs. What I remember is the sound of her voice, where the beats fell, the rise and the fall of the words all knitted together in a way that wasn't just talking, but something more, something different. Different too, were the nursery rhymes my grandmother taught me--Baa baa black sheep have you any wool? the stiff old lady in black would ask, and Mary Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow? and I would see the black sheep and the little girl who lived down the lane (which was the Gipsy's Lane I was afraid of, that ran near my granny's house), and I would see the girl in her funny garden of cockle bells and silver shells and pretty girls all in a row. And different again were the new sounds I heard at church, the hymns at the children's Mass or on the May procession (Faith of our fathers living still, in spite of dungeon fire and sword, or, in a more pacific vein, Daily daily sing to Mary), or the staggering novelty of the Latin, all mystery and incense, at Benediction. Tantum ergo, sacramentum, we sang, or Pange lingua--only a familiar word or two making common sense to us, the rest all lilt and ritual, a sort of perfumed, swooning sense of community.
But I was thirteen or fourteen, I think, and at a boarding school run by Cistercian monks in the middle of Ireland, before actual poems started to take hold. And the two that remain with me as a beginning, as truly and consciously loving encounters, the two that even now involuntarily conjure the same inchoate pleasures that I think I felt then, were a poem by Longfellow and a piece of a poem by Wordsworth. And I still wonder exactly why, the way one wonders about the "meaning" of a dream that can't be shaken.
What was it about Longfellow's "Chaucer" that sent me into a daze of delight and satisfaction? I think I must have been relishing (because I still relish) the way the words came off the page as things in the world. In the monastery school I was surrounded by fields and trees, the rich, sometimes somnolent midlands of Ireland. Country smells--of growth or decay--whenever you walked outside. So the poet's picture of another poet--who was only a name for us--"in a lodge within a park" had an oddly intimate feel to it, and there was something comforting about the fact that he listened to the lark, laughed at the sound of it, Then writeth in a book like any clerk. What I particularly loved, however, what stays most vividly with me, are the last few lines, in which Longfellow describes what became for me, I think, a perfect illustration of what might happen when one read a poem, a model of how to read, even a reason why to read: And as I read, he says,
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odours of plowed field or
"Odours" indeed! Sitting at my small desk, reading those words, my own head was full of smells, the smells of the wet sportsfield where we played rugby or hurling, the sharper green smells off the laurel bushes on the avenue. Of course I wasn't conscious of the things I'm saying now. But they were, I believe, tucked inside the experience, making it what it was. Which is true too about one of the Wordsworth pieces in our Intermediate anthology. Although I loved "Tintern Abbey" and "Nutting," and "There was a boy," which were also in the book, it was also "The Stolen Boat" (another extract from The Prelude, which, like Chaucer, was only a name to us) which stirred me most. I wonder why. When I look at the passage now, it is not the whole of it, but only a few lines that touch the zone of deepest memory, drawing me back to the study hall in Roscrea, the rustling silence broken by the sound of whispering or a small boy coughing, a desktop lifting or being quietly closed. The boat, says Wordsworth, leaves "Small circles glittering idly in the moon, / Until they melted all into one track / Of sparkling light." Such a clear picture that gave me, a picture of something that has fascinated me ever since--the play of light on water--and which, whenever I see it, especially at night, I think I must be seeing it in these words. Then comes the core of the poem, the sight of a hill rising up out of the darkness: "a huge peak, black and huge, / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upreared its head." This, I remember, was the most notable and affecting poetic image that I had ever met. It still is, still has that old power, rooted in that repetition, "a huge peak, black and huge," and then the sheer and literal animation of the mountain, in a movement of language that went far beyond personification. That was probably the first time, too, I had come across the use of "instinct" not as a noun but as a verb, the way your mind had to hover over the meaning. And I believe now that it must have been the most notable example I had ever experienced of the physical power of enjambment, the startling plunge from line ending to line beginning, the powerfully physical way "upreared"--placed at the start of the line like that, enacted, dramatised its own meaning, making that fearful peak loom over my mind so that I had no trouble sympathising with the terror Wordsworth was remembering, how the mountain, with "measured motion like living thing, / Strode after me." Then--the next hook in the poem--I remember being shaken by the language with which the poet takes in the experience till it becomes an element of his inner being and imagination: "but after I had seen / That spectacle, for many days, my brain / Worked with a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being." God knows what I made of that phrase "unknown modes of being," as an "idea." But I could feel it: what a nightmare was like, or the vague terror, fright in a major key, that was for me part of just living in a context where you had to be on your own a lot. It was this that the last lines of the poem referred to:
But huge and mighty forms,
that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly
through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
And all these lines and words and phrases, I now see, are precisely what my own feelings were in reading the poem. I was possessed by it. I think, too, that what impressed me, made me love this poem, was not only how it lived out in language the totality of a big emotional experience triggered by a small event, but how it sounded, the muscle of its movement, the beat of it, and that great final chord closing the door with such convincing finality. It was a language of "just telling," but a telling of something intimate and authentic in a language able to make me see and feel all the emotional stuff that pulsed inside that frightened and exhilarated moment's happening. I don't know. There was something very knowable and at the same time immense about what was going on here. If I loved the Longfellow poem about Chaucer because it gave me a sense that the language of poetry could be as palpable as the things of the world, could let us know the ordinary world in an immediate way, then I think I must have loved the Wordsworth piece because of how it let me know that the deepest emotional states--of guilt, fear, exaltation, weirdness--could be registered in a language as physically immediate as the things of nature itself, and how it brought home to me something of the way in which the natural world itself had a sort of primary force, a force as cogent as, but far less consoling than, the forms in which our religion asked us to understand the world. Of course this is all hindsight, and I had no way of thinking such thoughts about these poems then. But I feel fairly sure that some such elements were an unconscious part of my response to the poems, were part of the reason they left their mark on me, and why that mark was as indelible as the mark of love always is, "with all its aching joys," as Wordsworth says, "and all its dizzy raptures."
--Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 1998.