Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Northward bound

(written late evening 1 October)

Despite a day of unalleviated gloom, as I left Devon, through the train window and in London, it has, as I finally travel northwards and home, turned into one of those soft, clear evenings that is a pleasure. The fenlands stretch on either side, three geese flap lazily in a pink sky, and a skein of soft grey clouds presages night. By the time I reach Northumberland it will be dark, and only the flash of the lighthouse will tell me that I am on the last stage of my journey. Eight hours of travel today, and that pulse of light is as welcome as to any mariner.

The English countryside is soft and green, newly sown grass emerging from ploughed fields. Woods and copses loom dark against the sky, expanses of clear water, bespeckled with ducks, reflect a silvery light. It is dark enough now for a stand of birches to be white wands on a black filigree. I love Britain. It’s fashionable to decry it, to underestimate its sylvan beauty, but I travel its length and breadth, with leisure to gaze from carriage windows, and I love it. Flying back into London from Canada I think, “Thank God for hedges!”

I am privileged, I think, to have lived in so many wonderful parts of Britain: in the Highlands, massive and craggy, yet threaded with soft glens; on the edge of Dartmoor, where great grey rocks tumble amid the stream beds, captured by gnarled tree roots; in the southwest of Scotland, where the rain never stopped but every inch of the sheep-nibbled upland meadows was a jewelled carpet of microscopic wildflowers; Northumberland, where the sky goes on for ever and the boundary between the land and its legends is stretched thin.

For ten years I commuted daily to Edinburgh and every morning, as I watched the sea breaking along the cliffs, and every evening, as the Cheviot loomed on the homeward journey, I could feel my soul lift and my spirit being restored. Even in deepest winter there was that brief lighthouse beam, with its resonances of wave and spindrift, in the final moments before reaching home.

Now I work from home as much as possible, and the sea is a distant sparkle, but the Cheviot is omnipresent, even when enshrouded by mist, and the daily comings and goings are conducted by sparrows, not people. Some days, ensnared by email and telephone, I scarcely set foot outside, but the minutiae of country life continues around me, and I catch glimpses of it through the window. A wren foraging for insects in the ivy, a troop of partridge crooning to each other in the morning sunlight, a mother woodpecker feeding her offspring on peanuts - small pleasures, but they suffice.

Gerard Manley Hopkins knew about the beauty of the small, the generally unremarked:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty, 1918)


Hannah Velten said...

lovely poem - never heard of 'rose-moles' on the trout - beautiful. Any idea what 'all trades' are? (can't find accent symbol!)
I love living in Britain too - we are so lucky here...

GeraniumCat said...

Hannah - The accents are just to make sure you stress the words as intended, Hopkins included them because he didn't write in conventional rhythms.

He often wrote in celebration of country crafts, and I think what he means by "all trades" is that, though trades are manmade and so run counter to the purity of Nature they are, like the speckled creatures, essentially pure in themselves and expressing their Godliness (speckledness in an animal would be considered a fault by the Victorians). I think of the clanging of a blacksmith's hammer as an example of the dappledness of a trade, or the varying colours of earth turned by a plough.

Critics out there may disagree, of course! I think I should edit the post to include the whole poem, because thw whole thing is lovely. Hopkins is my favourite poet.

mountainear said...

What a treat to come across your blog - and this, one of my most favourite of poems. I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly take on board his religiousty but I can wonder at life's wonderful detail.

And all trades, their gear tackle and trim? I've always taken it to mean the tools and implements particular to a craft or calling - how diverse they are, and specialised too: the carpenter has his tools, the horseman the leather and brass harness and so on. Is that too simple?

GeraniumCat said...

Welcome, m'ear and thanks for your comment - I agree about Hopkins' religiosity, though I do find he's good at making me feel much more spiritual than I really am!

I think you are absolutely right about all trades, and I explained what I was trying to say very badly, but what I meant was that he includes trades not just because they have the features you suggest, but also because they aren't actually part of nature, so they share an element of "wrongness" that the speckled creatures have. But I may well be overcomplicating things!

Think I'll find an excuse for another Hopkins poem soon.