It’s been a fragmented and rather discombobulating week here chez gallimaufry. I have started teaching an English language course at an adult education college (I gave my first ever lesson yesterday – not what one might call a cracking success, but nobody died and I am lucky in having lovely students). It’s only three hours’ teaching a week but there have been meetings and paperwork and ahem a party so that I have been busy to a degree I had forgotten was possible. Actually I have found it rather difficult and keep forgetting important things, but I am hoping that my brain will adjust and meanwhile am exploiting my colleagues’ extremely generous natures to the hilt. Meanwhile, my daughter has been strapping on her schoolbag for the first time. In Belgium most children start attending ‘school’ once they’re two and a half, and she has just – just – reached that age. As she’s never been in a crèche or even spent much time away from one or other of her parents it has been enormously difficult for her, but today she suddenly turned a corner and while I cannot imagine her skipping there joyfully in the next few days, at least I need not worry that we are pushing her into something for which she’s not ready. I am also, of course, very proud of her.
In such a week my rediscovered enthusiasm for poetry has been a great comfort: I can always squeeze a few minutes of reading before I go to bed and when even a short story is too long for the time available a poem is just right. I was thinking that I might post here some of the poems I find which I like, copyright and length permitting, in an irregular, undisciplined and unschematic sort of way. I’ll tell you why I like them, and I’d love to read your thoughts too.
My first poem is by Christina Rossetti, a poet I first encountered as a child. My mother has a beautiful edition of ‘Goblin Market’ and other poems illustrated by Arthur Rackham. It was kept in a glass-fronted bookcase in the sitting-room with her other most loved and precious books and as long as I was careful, I was allowed to look at it. The pictures were what first drew me to it, but then I started reading and enjoying the delicious words.
I thought I would post one of her lesser-known (and short!) poems here, written in 1884/5 and untitled. It is from her Poems and Prose edited by Jan Marsh and published by Everyman (1994).
Roses on the brier,
Pearls from out the bitter sea,
Such is earth’s desire
However pure it be.
Neither bud nor brier,
Neither pearl for me:
Be stilled, my long desire;
There shall be no more sea.
Be stilled, my passionate heart;
Old earth shall end, new earth shall be:
Be still, and earn thy part
Where shall be no more sea.
I like the way it is apparently simple in vocabulary and structure but full of tension. The bud, brier, pearl and sea which are rejected seem much more attractive than the ‘new earth’ which is a unimaginable, empty. The rhyme is all me–sea–be; it flows across the stanzas like the ‘long’ desire and the sea and it seems to be arguing against the command to ‘Be still’ and earn your place in heaven because it is insisting – me, sea, be. They won’t disappear as the speaker wants them to.
Do you like it? (I won’t throw things at you if you don’t.)
(Dante Charles Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Christina Rossetti, head and shoulders, turned three-quarters to the left, pastel on paper, 1877; private collection; photo © Christie’s Images/The Bridgeman Art Library. This image seems to capture Rossetti’s melancholy and subdued, but still smouldering, passions)