The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
This seems a fitting sonnet on the Monday after the conclusion of the Tour de France, particularly since a Welshman prevailed in the yellow jersey at the end. But this poem does not depict a race, quite the opposite. It depicts the kind of bike ride that is made magical by repetition, by fraternity with friends, having done it so many times, that the riders become Lord and master of the road upon which they glide along.
Kavanagh and Selkirk shared more than this understanding of self determination, they were both the sons of poor cobblers. Selkirk responded to his surroundings of childhood poverty in Scotland by famously becoming a privateer and seeking his fortune on the high seas. Kavanagh took a decidedly different route, apprenticing to his father and following in his footsteps, settling into a life of rural poverty and finding a sense of peace in the simplicity it provides. Kavanagh understood both poverty and the ignorance that can be its bitter fruit, the latter much more vexing, his lack of access to a quality education a torment to his bright mind that would be a source of both inspiration and drive in his writing to witness his community honestly.
I recognize the feeling in this poem, the sense of understanding of a stretch of land and your community of friends and neighbors that you call home that goes beyond familiarity, becoming a place where the dust is part of your bones. A place where you look around down the road and can anticipate the view before you round the bend, a stretch where you can bike or walk it in complete darkness, so complete is your knowledge of its ruts and turns.
That is one of the magical aspects of rural life, the fact that change happens more slowly, the landscape seemingly timeless from one year to the next, so that by degrees you become one with its firmament. Kavanagh understood another truth of rural poverty, that no matter how lean the soil and crop from which it sprouts, a man and woman will give everything to defend it if they call it home. And that deep-seated grudges can become longstanding epic generational disputes over a simple boundary line of property when two families claim it as their own or one family has gotten the better of another under trying circumstances.
by Partrick Kavanagh
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
FYI – A rood is 40 square rods of land or about a quarter of an acre.
I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!
There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.
As starts the absent dreamer when a train,
Suddenly disengulphed below his feet,
Roars forth into the sunlight, to its seat
My soul was shaken with immediate pain
Intolerable as the scanty breath
Of that one word blew utterly away
The fragile mist of fair deceit that lay
O’er the bleak years that severed me from death.
Yes, at the sight I quailed: but, not unwise
Or not, O God, without some nervous thread
Of that valour, Patience, bowed my head,
And with firm bosom and most steadfast eyes,
Strong in all high resolve, prepared to tread
The unlovely path that leads me toward the skies.
I had the good fortune to find in my local used book store a little gem of a book last Saturday. It is a limited edition, one of 200 by Melville Press. It is titled Prayers, (sometimes also referred to as Prayers Written at Vailima) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and has an introduction by Mrs. R. L. Stevenson.
Mrs. R. L. Stevenson begins the introduction:
In every Samoan household the day is closed with prayer and the singing of hymns. The omission of this sacred duty would indicate not only a lack of religious training in the house chief, but a shameless disregard of all that is reputable in Samoan social life…
What makes this small volume of prayer interesting is that if you read most accounts of Stevenson’s life he was an avowed atheist. He admitted to his parents that he had rejected Christianity by age 23, following his father’s inquiries into his membership into the RJR club (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) whose motto reads; “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.”
This would be the second time Stevenson had broken with his father’s hopes for him, the first when he had decided to not pursue a college degree in engineering and join the family firm in designing, and building lighthouses, instead choosing to become a writer. The second decision he felt an ever bigger betrayal in his parents eyes, becoming a godless bohemian. Stevenson wrote:
“What a damned curse I am to my parents!” As my father said “You have rendered my whole life a failure”. As my mother said “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me”. O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
So how does one reconcile this beautiful book of prayer published after his death, with his prior public statements as a non-believer? Is it a case of his wife trying to do a bit of postmortem PR on his behalf to rehabilitate his reputation for posterity? Or did Stevenson have a change in spiritual perspective late in life? Stevenson was sickly his entire 44 years. He would not be the first person who proclaimed loudly his rejection of Christianity only to have a change of heart when realizing that death was drawing near.
However, as someone who has been an agnostic his entire adult life, and yet attempts to write prayerful poetry, I keenly recognize that these two seemingly contradictory stances by Stevenson can cohesively co-exist. The language of reverence is the same for all religions. And even atheists may write a prayer of grace, including the word Lord, knowing it will make it meaningful to a broader audience. The word, Lord, a nod to their own admonition of uncertainty or certainty as for what or whom their particular Lord might represent in their minds, even if it is different from Christians.
Only Stevenson knows what he believed at the end of his life. He may very well have continued to reject some or all of Christianity, and at the same time used his skills as a story teller to pen prayers to make it possible to more fully participate in the community he was living.
Mrs Stevenson explains in the introduction:
“Vailima lay up some three miles of continual rise from Apia, and more than half that distance from the nearest village. It was a long way for a tired man to walk down every evening, with the sole purpose of joining in family worship; and the road through the bush was dark, and, to the Samoan imagination, beset with supernatural terrors. Wherefore, as soon as our household had fallen into a regular routine, and the bonds of the Samoan family life began to draw us more closely together, Tusitala (Samoan for storyteller, referring to R.L.S.) felt the necessity of including our retainers in our evening devotions. I suppose ours was the only white man’s family in all Samoa, except those of the missionaries, where the day naturally ended with the homely, patriarchal custom. Not only were the religious scruples of the natives satisfied, but what we did not forsee, our own respectability – and incidentally that of our retainers – became assured and the influence of Tusitala increased tenflold.”
These services were simple and would have sounded exotic to a former Presbyterian Scot’s ears, suitably unconventional to satisfy whatever lay in his own heart. They began by his son reading a chapter from the Samoan bible, then Tusitala saying a prayer, impromptu or from his notebook, modifying them to fit the needs of the day. Then came the singing of a hymn in the Samoan language, accented sometimes by the strangely savage monotonous noise of native drums from inhabitants close to his household at close of day, and then closing with the Lord’s Prayer, also in Samoan. Mrs. Stevenson writes, “many of these hymns were set to ancient tunes very wild and warlike and strangely at variance with the words.”
What better setting and mood for a man to craft his personal theology, than to take the foundation of spiritual beliefs from his upbringing and reshape them as a humanist in a foreign land.
On the evening before his death, the service was unusually short, and Mrs. Stevenson asked him at its conclusion, “What is it?” He replied. “I am not yet fit to say “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” I recognize that reluctance in Stevenson’s admission, my own doubts having silenced me into ponder on occasion at precisely that same line.
Mrs. Stevenson concludes the introduction with the following:
It is with natural reluctance that I touch upon the last prayer of my husband’s life. Many have supposed that he showed, in the wording of this prayer, that he had some premonition of his approaching death. I am sure he had no such premonition. It was I who told the assembled family that I felt an impending disaster approaching nearer and nearer. Any Scot will understand that my statement was received seriously. It would not be, we thought, that danger threatened anyone within the house; but Graham Balfour, my husband’s cousin, very near and dear to us, was away on a perilous cruise. Our fears followed the various vessels, more or less unseaworthy, in which he was making his way from island to island to the atoll where the exiled king, Matafa, was at that time imprisoned. In my husband’s last prayer, the night before his death, he asked that we should be given strength to bear the loss of this dear friend, should such a sorrow befall us.”
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Grant that we here before Thee may be set
free from the fear of vicissitude and the fear of
death, may finish what remains before us of
our course without dishonor to ourselves or
hurt to others, and, when the day comes, may die
in peace. Deliver us from fear and favor: from
mean hopes and cheap pleasures. Have mercy on
each in his deficiency; let him be not cast down;
support the stumbling on the way, and give at
last rest to the weary.
All we were going strong last night this time,
the mosts were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous and sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, and evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstasies-
among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote.
“In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”
You Played And Sang A Snatch of Song
By William Earnest Henley (1849 – 1903)
You played and sang a snatch of song,
A song that all-too well we knew;
But whither had flown the ancient wrong;
And was it really I and you?
O, since the end of life’s to live
And pay in pence the common debt,
What should it cost us to forgive
Whose daily task is to forget?
You babbled in the well-known voice –
Not new, not new the words you said.
You touched me off that famous poise,
That old effect, of neck and head.
Dear, was it really you and I?
In truth the riddle’s ill to read,
So many are the deaths we die
Before we can be dead indeed.
It was the hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday this week. For a man with such eloquence of speech and writing, I have been surprised that I have yet to find any poetry as part of his legacy. Mandela related many times that his favorite poem was Invictus by William Earnest Henley, the words a personal prayer and inspiration during his 27 years in prison.
Henley had a long and productive literary and publishing career for a man that died relatively young. Henley was a poet, a literary critic, an editor of journals and newspapers and a writer, who was highly influential in late 19th century English literature.
Invictus is Henley’s most famous poem. The circumstances surrounding its creation fueled by his own personal trials. Henley wrote it from a hospital bed, while seeking treatments over a three year period to save his remaining leg from amputation as a result of complications from tuberculosis. Henley suffered under the weight of TB from the age of 12 onward, the disease infecting his bones which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868. Henley refused to take the advice of doctors to remove his remaining leg to save his life, and spent three years undergoing treatments in a London hospital in his early 20’s. Although the treatments proved only partially successful, and he would suffer from complications from TB for his entire life, it did not stop him from living a robust and colorful life. It was during his three year confinement to the hospital that Henley wrote the poem, initially untitled, published with a group of poems known only as “Hospital Poems.” The poem would become known as Invictus well after his death, the title appointed by an editor of anthology of English poetry many years later.
Henley’s suffering from TB did not diminish his life experience. Following the publication of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his friend Henley. Stevenson described Henley as “… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.” Stevenson wrote, “… it was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”
I wonder whether Henley ever contemplated how enduring his legacy would become while he penned those lines, or how powerful those words would be to inspire others to overcome hardship and injustice? Nelson Mandela, by strength of his inner character, lived to see a better world and his nation freed from the injustice and moral failure of apartheid. Mandela’s entire life was an inspiration to the world, that leadership based on a reasoned goal of justice and equality will ultimately prevail. One of my favorite sayings of a friend of mine is: “Justice is just us.”
So, what will it be, just you and me, equal and united or separate and divided? I’ll take equal and united…
by William Earnest Henley
Out of the night that covers me, .Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be .For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance .I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance .My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears .Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years .Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate, .How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate, .I am the captain of my soul.
The dream went like a rake of sliced bamboo,
slats of dust distracted by a downdraw;
I woke and knew I held a cigarette;
I looked, there was none, could have been none;
I slept off years before I woke again,
palming the floor, shaking the sheets. I saw
nothing was burning. I awoke, I saw
I was holding two lighted cigarettes. . . .
They come this path, old friends, old buffs of death.
Tonight it’s Randall, his spark still fire though humble,
his gnawed wrist cradled like Kitten. “What kept you so long,
racing the cooling grindstone of your ambition?
You didn’t write, you rewrote…. But tell me,
Cal, why did we live? Why do we die?”
by Randall Jarrell
I wake, but before I know it it is done,
The day, I sleep. . . . And of days like these the years,
A life are made. I nod, consenting to my life,
-But who can live in these quick-passing hours?
I need to find again, to make a life,
A child’s Sunday afternoon, the Pleasure Drive,
Where everything went by but time – the Study Hour
Spent at a desk with folded hands, in waiting.
In those I could make. Did I not make in them
Myself? the Grown One whose time shortens,
Breath quickens, heart beats faster, till at last
It catches, skips? Yet those hours that seemed, were endless
Were still not long enough to have remade
My childish heart: the heart that must have, always,
To make anything of anything, not time,
Not time but – . but alas! eternity.
“And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.”
A Vision of Rest
by Alexander Posey
Some day this quest
This heart shall rest
Sometimes—ofttimes—I almost feel
The calm upon my senses steal,
So soft, and all but hear
The dead leaves rustle near
And sign to be
At rest with me.
Though I behold
The ashen branches tossing to and fro,
Somehow I only vaguely know
The wind is rude and cold.
The Poet’s Delay
by Henry David Thoreau
In vain I see the morning rise,
In vain observe the western blaze,
Who idly look to other skies,
Expecting life by other ways.
Amidst such boundless wealth without,
I only still am poor within,
The birds have sung their summer out,
But still my spring does not begin.
Shall I then wait the autumn wind,
Compelled to seek a milder day,
And leave no curious nest behind,
No woods still echoing to my lay?