Saturday, 27 August 2011

"A First Content With The Universe..."

I know that at least one or two readers of this mighty blog have a powerful feeling for the cycle of seasons and for identification with the natural world in general. Robert Byron was probably the first modern travel writer, with his "The Road to Oxiana." He wrote this beautiful piece about British flora. We have to allow him the fact that he didn't seem to consider that he might have a daughter...but that was then and this is now. Anyway he was, according to Wikipedia, gay, so either this was written before he understood his own sexuality, or it represents simply a powerful imaginative reaching out towards something that was unlikely to happen. (Gay people did not adopt children back then.)

I was asked to read it at a funeral. I thought it was such a beautful way of saying "thank you" from a daughter to her mother, for an introduction to the web of life and cycle of the seasons.

But when I first started reading it, I thought it might simply be one of those over-delicate, precious Edwardian reveries, kind of sub-Kenneth Graham at his worst. By the time I'd finished it, I was intoxicated. Just let the names get to work, sit back and let go....

All These I Learnt

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies, who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit.

He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs' mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot.

He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd's purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes.

He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat's beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady's bedstraw and lady's slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills - dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven.

In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample vetches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog.

By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel.

In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue - glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky - and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe.

Posted by Picasa


  1. I blinking LOVE this! Thank you for it. I shall print it out and stick it above my computer screen and live with it. (Ah, Yorkshire Fog. Always loved that in particular. 'Blood-pink larch-tufts.' Masterly.

    Do you remember those Shell guides to the countryside - posters you'd see in schools? This is a bit like one of those, except 4 seasons in one.

    What a fab start to my day!

  2. Hooray for Robert Byron, so glad you enjoyed it. And yes, Shell guide posters. And indeed books. Shell Guide to East Anglia? Masterpiece.

  3. What a wonderful poem! The litany of names intoxicating and so evocative. Though if mindfulness is about being intensely present, does it matter that, reciting them, I am transported to long lost woods and meadows and long past summers? Thank you GM - real find.

  4. Very welcome Vale, pleased it resounds for you - as for the mindfulness question - an interesting one I can't answer - I guess it's a different mental state, but I'm sure it's Good For You!

    Actually, doing a mindful meditation course can throw up quite a lot of "stuff" from the past, and on my course there was a support counsellor available, though if I'd gone to her with this passage, reckon she'd have said "your problem is, you're in a state of bliss."

  5. I've been musing on the power of this poem for days now GM, and, although this is a little tangential, wanted to share a thought on the meaning of naming. So much of the energy of the poem springs directly from the litany of names, doesn't it?

    And naming matters. Symbolically and metaphorically it's presented as an expression of power. Adam's name giving establishes his stewardship and dominion over the beasts of the field (poor devils). A lot of modern psychology and counselling derives from the same idea - name the fear or the complex and you are on the way to mastering it. Reading this poem makes me think that this is far too crude a description of what is going on i these simple plant names - they are too redolent of myth and fantasy, imagination and practical purpose. Reading them aloud you have to they were born of all sorts of complex interactions and relationships.

    This feels very important to me. From where I sit, most of the wicked problems that world faces spring from the old, crude sense of dominion. If we could only hold in mind the complexity, the subtle interdependency that alone sustains us we might have more hope for the future.

    I'm off to read some John Clare. Thanks for your time...

  6. Thanks rather for yours, Vale, and for these insights. You help us to - not to "understand" the passage better, but to allow it to work more fully through its interactions - train whistle and harebells ("the rattle of harebells" - just think of the degree of contact and immersion we need to hear that!)What you conclude from this seems right there to me.
    There are key words, perhaps even more now than when Raymond Williams wrote his book, that we need to keep revisiting and engaging with and re-working if we are to stand any chance of understanding what's going on, and in our work as much as anywhere. H'mm. More on this sometime soon, perhaps.
    Sorry not to get your enlightenment on sooner, been away.