I wrote in the last sketch but one of the villager with a literary gift who composes the epitaphs in rhyme of his neighbours when they pass away and are buried in the churchyard. This has served to remind me of a kindred subject—the poetry or verse (my own included) of those who are not poets by profession: also of an incident. Undoubtedly there is a vast difference between the village rhymester and the true poet, and the poetry I am now concerned with may be said to come somewhat between these two extremes. Or to describe it in metaphor, it may be said to come midway between the crow of the "tame villatic fowl" and the music of the nightingale in the neighbouring copse or of the skylark singing at heaven's gate. The impartial reader may say at the finish that the incident was not worth relating. Are there any such readers? I doubt it. I take it that we all, even those who appear the most matter-of-fact in their minds and lives, have something of the root, the elements, of poetry in their composition. How should it be otherwise, seeing that we are all creatures of like passions, all in some degree dreamers of dreams; and as we all possess the faculty of memory we must at times experience emotions recollected in tranquillity. And that, our masters have told us, is poetry.
It is hardly necessary to say that it is nothing of the sort: it is the elements, the essence, the feeling which makes poetry if expressed. I have a passion for music, a perpetual desire to express myself in music, but as I can't sing and can't perform on any musical instrument, I can't call myself a musician. The poetic feeling that is in us and cannot be expressed remains a secret untold, a warmth in the heart, a rapture which cannot be communicated. But it cries to be told, and in some rare instances the desire overcomes the difficulty: in a happy moment the unknown language is captured as by a miracle and the secret comes out.
And, as a rule, when it has been expressed it is put in the fire, or locked up in a desk. By-and-by the hidden poem will be taken out and read with a blush. For how could he, a practical-minded man, with a wholesome contempt for the small scribblers and people weak in their intellectuals generally, have imagined himself a poet and produced this pitiful stuff!
Then, too, there are others who blush, but with pleasure, at the thought that, without being poets, they have written something out of their own heads which, to them at all events, reads just like poetry. Some of these little poems find their way into an editor's hands, to be looked at and thrown aside in most cases, but occasionally one wins a place in some periodical, and my story relates to one of these chosen products—or rather to three.
One summer afternoon, many years ago—but I know the exact date: July 1st, 1897—I was drinking tea on the lawn of a house at Kew, when the maid brought the letters out to her mistress, and she, Mrs. E. Hubbard, looking over the pile remarked that she saw the Selborne Magazine had come and she would just glance over it to see if it contained anything to interest both of us.
After a minute or two she exclaimed "Why, here is a
poem by Charlie
Longman! How strange—I never suspected him of being a poet!"
She was speaking of C. J. Longman, the publisher, and it must be explained that he was an intimate friend and connection of hers through his marriage with her niece, the daughter of Sir John Evans the antiquary, and sister of Sir Arthur Evans.
The poem was To the Orange-tip Butterfly.
Thine hour is when the thrushes sing,
When gently stirs the vernal breeze,
When earth and sky proclaim the spring;
When all the fields melodious ring
With cuckoos' calls, when all the trees
Put on their green, then art thou king
Of butterflies, Cardamines.
What though thine hour be brief, for thee
The storms of winter never blow,
No autumn gales shall scorn the lea,
Thou scarce shalt feel the summer's glow;
But soaring high or flitting low,
Or racing with the awakening bees
For spring's first draughts of honey—so
Thy life is passed, Cardamines.
E'en among mortal men I wot
Brief life while spring-time quickly flees
Might seem a not ungrateful lot:
For summer's rays are scorching hot
And autumn holds but summer's lees,
And swift in autumn is forgot
The winter comes, Cardamines.
So well pleased were we with this little lyric that we read it aloud two or three times over to each other: for it was a hot summer's day when the early, freshness and bloom is over and the foliage takes on a deeper, almost sombre green; and it brought back to us the vivid spring feeling, the delight we had so often experienced on seeing again the orange-tip, that frail delicate flutterer, the loveliest, the most spiritual, of our butterflies.
Oddly enough, the very thing which, one supposes, would spoil a lyric about any natural object—the use of a scientific instead of a popular name, with the doubling and frequent repetition of it—appeared in this instance to add a novel distinction and beauty to the verses.
The end of our talk on the subject was a suggestion I made that it would be a nice act on her part to follow Longman's lead and write a little nature poem for the next number of the magazine. This she said she would do if I on my part would promise to follow her poem with one by me, and I said I would.
Accordingly her poem, which I transcribe, made its appearance in the next number.
Purple with heather, and golden with gorse,
Stretches the moorland for mile after mile;
Over it cloud-shadows float in their course,—
Grave thoughts passing athwart a smile,—
Till the shimmering distance, grey and gold,
Drowns all in a glory manifold.
O the blue butterflies quivering there,
Hovering, flickering, never at rest,
Quickened flecks of the upper air
Brought down by seeing the earth so blest;
And the grasshoppers shrilling their quaint delight
At having been born in a world so bright!
Overhead circles the lapwing slow,
Waving his black-tipped curves of wings,
Calling so clearly that I, as I go,
Call back an answering "Peewit," that brings
The sweep of his circles so low as he flies
That I see his green plume, and the doubt in his eyes.
Harebell and crowfoot and bracken and ling
Gladden my heart as it beats all aglow
In a brotherhood true with each living thing,
From the crimson-tipped bee, and the chaffer slow,
And the small lithe lizard, with jewelled eye,
To the lark that has lost herself far in the sky.
Ay me, where am I? for here I sit
With bricks all round me, bilious and brown;
And not a chance this summer to quit
The bustle and roar and the cries of town,
Nor to cease to breathe this over-breathed air,
Heavy with toil and bitter with care.
Well,—face it and chase it, this vain regret;
Which would I choose, to see my moor
With eyes such as many that I have met,
Which see and are blind, which all wealth leaves poor,
Or to sit, brick-prisoned, but free within,
Freeborn by a charter no gold can win?
When my turn came, the poem I wrote, which duly appeared, was, like my friend's Moor, a recollected emotion, a mental experience relived. Mine was in the New Forest; when walking there on day, the loveliness of that green leafy world, its silence and its melody and the divine sunlight, so wrought on me that for a few precious moments it produced a mystical state, that rare condition of beautiful illusions when the feet are off the ground, when, on some occasions, we appear to be one with nature, unbodied like the poet's bird, floating, diffused in it. There are also other occasions when this transfigured aspect of nature produces the idea that we are in communion with or in the presence of unearthly entities.
It must be true, I've somtimes thought,
That beings from some realm afar
Oft wander in the void immense,
Flying from star to star.
In silence through this various world,
They pass, to mortal eyes unseen,
And toiling men in towns know not
That one with them has been.
But oft, when on the woodland falls
A sudden hush, and no bird sings;
When leaves, scarce fluttered by the wind,
Speak low of sacred things,
My heart has told me I should know,
In such a lonely place, if one
From other worlds came there and stood
Between me and the sun.
At noon, within the woodland shade
I walked and listened to the birds;
And feeling glad like them I sang
A low song without words.
When all at once a radiance white,
Not from the sun, all round me came;
The dead leaves burned like gold, the grass
Like tongues of emerald flame.
The murmured song died on my lips;
Scarce breathing, motionless I stood;
So strange that splendour was! so deep
A silence held the wood!
The blood rushed to and from my heart,
Now felt like ice, now fire in me,
Till putting forth my hands, I cried,
"O let me hear and see!"
But even as I spake, and gazed
Wide-eyed, and bowed my trembling knees,
The glory and the silence passed
Like lightning from the trees.
And pale at first the sunlight seemed
When it was gone; the leaves were stirred
To whispered sound, and loud rang out
The carol of a bird.
End of Project Gutenberg's A Traveller in Little Things, by W. H. Hudson