On Saturday August 27, this letter appeared in the Washington Post:
While reading the first paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” [“The largely forgotten mystery that should be in your beach bag,” Style, Aug. 18], I slipped the sordid and mundane bonds of the present. The distant life of ideas, which brings solace and meaning to a brutish world, peeked for a moment over the dark horizon like an unannounced sunrise.
Most of us leave that life behind when we leave school. We forget about poetry and literature and lofty thoughts; we forget how much they lighten the load of being and bring order to chaos; we become poorer.
For a few moments, I felt rich and young again. “What species of utterance is this?” Ode or elegy, it is the only one that lasts.
Thanks go to Dirda for that tiny glance back to the ivory tower, a relic of which I still carry near my heart.
Lynn Peterson Mobley, Great Falls
My first thought was that the phrase “the sordid and mundane bonds of the present” had a familiar ring. It put me in mind of Ronald Reagan. Research took me to Reagan’s address to the nation on the occasion of the Challenger tragedy. The President concluded that speech with the following words:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Those phrases are taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Reagan’s address on that terrible occasion was a model of grace and clarity. The story of how it came to be written – under pressure and at a moment of extreme urgency – is quite interesting. It made a star out of the (young and inexperienced) woman from whose pen it issued.
As for Lynn Peterson Mobley’s letter, I am in awe of the beauty of expression that she summoned therein. I could not agree with her more about “poetry and literature and lofty thoughts.” I too had a college experience in which those values were paramount. At Goucher College, I was fortunate enough as an English major to have world class professors to teach and inspire me:
Professor William Hedges on American Literature
Professor William Mueller on Existentialism
Professor Brooke Peirce on Shakespeare and poetry of the English Enlightenment
Decades later, I remain deeply thankful for this experience.
The poetry that resonates most deeply with me right now (as I seek for ways to return to Great Britain) is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
I’ve read two novels entitled An Air That Kills. One is the first entry in Andrew Taylor’s fine Lydmouth series; the other is by Margaret Millar.
Having traveled to Shropshire and the incredibly beautiful Welsh border country in 2011, I gained a vivid appreciation of how much A Shropshire Lad means to the British people. While in a bookshop in one of the towns we passed through, I bought a beautiful new edition of the poem.
Is My Team Ploughing
By A. E. Housman
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”
Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
The Poetry Foundation site has an excellent biography of Housman.
This edition of A Shropshire Lad was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2009 on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
I like the short commentary on the Naxos Audiobook site:
In A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman recreates a nostalgic world of lost love, lost youth, thwarted friendships, unfaithful girls, male bonding, untimely death and the uncertain glories of being a soldier. The poems deal with the exuberance of youth – its aspirations and disappointments, its naïve certainties and tragic mistakes. Though written in 1895, it struck a chord with the generation of young men who fought in World War I. It was said that every ‘Tommy’ had a copy in his knapsack. It has never been out of print.