Friday 17 April 2020

'The daily things we do'

Divination by bibliomancy – opening a book at random and extracting some kind of message or wisdom from the first passage you alight on – has a long history. The Sortes Virgilianae made use of the Aeneid, while the Sortes Homericae did the same thing with Homer, and there's a long Christian tradition of opening the Bible at random in hope of enlightenment or prophecy. When I opened my Larkin at random last night I was not in search of either, but the volume happened to fall open at this short poem, one of his last, which seems oddly appropriate for these strange times –

The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

Then this morning, on Today (which at present might as well be called Groundhog Day), I happened on Martha Kearney reading Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a poem of voluntary self-isolation if ever there was one –

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is just the kind of exalted, incantatory stuff that (like much of Dylan Thomas) appeals to people who don't know much about poetry but know what it should sound like. Much to Yeats's annoyance, it became in his lifetime his most popular poem with readers and reciters alike. Dylan Thomas, as it happens, mentioned the fate of Innisfree in a radio talk about what poets are remembered by:  'It was Yeats who objected to, I think, a thousand boy-scouts reciting, in unison, in the Albert Hall, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a poem about a lonely man desiring more loneliness.'
  A thousand boy scouts? It might have been: other accounts say a hundred, others two thousand, yet others a mind-boggling ten thousand. The point is made: it's not something you'd wish to hear. And now here's Larkin again, ruefully contemplating the likely fate of what had become his own poetical albatross, This Be the Verse –
'"They fuck you up" will clearly be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.' 
Happily, it never came to that...


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