Sunday 2 January 2022

'I am my own and not my own'

 My youthful prejudices have often served me well. Not because they were right – they were generally plumb wrong – but because they have deferred my discovery of some wonderful things to the point when I was old enough to appreciate them. Baroque music is a case in point: in my early listening years, I was so wedded to the Romantic orchestral canon that I had little time for the Baroque (and besides, in those days there was far less of it available on record, and it was mostly performed in a decidedly un-Baroque style). Nowadays I listen more to Baroque music than to any other style, and indeed more to chamber music than orchestral. 
  Among writers, one of my youthful prejudices was against Thom Gunn. It didn't help that he was a product of my own university – that was one more reason to resent his precocious success – but mostly my prejudice was down to my (then fashionable) distaste for traditional poetic form and clear diction, things that today, having reached mature years, I value very highly in poetry. My discovery of how good Thom Gunn could be was long delayed, but gradually I began to enjoy individual poems that I came across – some of which I've posted here – and, after reading his late collection The Man with Night Sweats, I realised that I must read more of this seriously good poet whom I'd so foolishly dismissed.
  Browsing in his Poems 1950-1966 last night, I came across a poem appropriate for Christmastide, one that even chimes with the Incarnation sermon I heard on Christmas Day...

Jesus and His Mother

My only son, more God’s than mine,
Stay in this garden ripe with pears.
The yielding of their substance wears
A modest and contented shine,
And when they weep with age, not brine
But lazy syrup are their tears.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

He seemed much like another man,
That silent foreigner who trod
Outside my door with lily rod:
How could I know what I began
Meeting the eyes more furious than
The eyes of Joseph, those of God?
I was my own and not my own.

And who are these twelve labouring men?
I do not understand your words:
I taught you speech, we named the birds,
You marked their big migrations then
Like any child. So turn again
To silence from the place of crowds.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Why are you sullen when I speak?
Here are your tools, the saw and knife
And hammer on your bench. Your life
Is measured here in week and week
Planed as the furniture you make,
And I will teach you like a wife
To be my own and all my own.

Who like an arrogant wind blown
Where he may please, needs no content?
Yet I remember how you went
To speak with scholars in furred gown.
I hear an outcry in the town;
Who carries that dark instrument?
‘One all his own and not his own’.

Treading the green and nimble sward
I stare at a strange shadow thrown.
Are you the boy I bore alone,
No doctor near to cut the cord?
I cannot reach to call you Lord,
Answer me as my only son.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

This was the first of Gunn's poem to appear in the TLS – in August 1954, when he was 24 years old. It can be read equally well as a religious poem or as a study of the estrangement between parent and child occasioned by a special gift or calling. The last lines of each stanza play variations on the theme of being our own and not our own. The pattern of rhyme and half-rhyme varies subtly in each stanza, and as the poem nears its end, rhymes on 'own' become more insistent, until in the last stanza 'I am my own and not my own' is strengthened by rhyming fully, for the first time, with the second and third line. Gunn was always a consummate craftsman. 
The pear is an attribute of the Madonna and Child, and appears in paintings by (among others) Dürer and Bellini. The latter is a beautiful work, with perhaps something of the feel of Gunn's poem...

No comments:

Post a Comment