Word from Wormingford
Ronald Blythe returns from matins to find
three poets in his garden
HAVING preached on St Mary Magdalene at matins, I returned home
to find three Persian poets in the garden. Having told my young
neighbours that I once lived near Boulge, the Suffolk village where
Edward FitzGerald translated The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám,
they had driven to his grave and recited what was once one of the
most popular poems in the English language. I knew most of it by
heart in my teens. Published in 1859, it was found in a
bookseller's tuppenny box by Swinburne, and soon everyone was
reciting it aloud.
And now, having in my vague way mentioned this famous tale to
friends up the lane, here they are, princes from the East, exotic
and beautiful, and waiting for a lunchtime drink. Worse or better,
whichever you prefer, they returned to their London flats in those
clothes. I simply hung my cassock on a peg.
But the Bottengoms roses in their innocence and profusion
perfumed the whole garden. The white cat observed all this with
some disdain, sprawling on the bone-dry earth and looking up with
little interest. Give her good plain human behaviour any day. One
of the boys had actually visited Omar's city, seen his rose in
situ, slept under his stars. On the strength of this, he
returned to his London flat in his robe, sash, and sandals.
Then John the Vicar calls to discuss 4 August, that tragic date.
He has chosen Thomas Hardy's "Men who March Away", and Rupert
Brooke's "The Soldier" and "Safety" for me to read. The latter is a
little-known poem about the safety of death. "Safe shall be my
going." So let the slaughter begin.
Time does not still the madness of the First World War. My
teenage father ran from the plough to the recruiting station at
Stowmarket, and was soon at Gallipoli. Brooke was on the same
convoy, but a mosquito intervened, and the troopship pulled in to
Skyros, where a grave was dug with difficulty on the rocky shore.
Men who sail away.
I lent his poems to Edward, the young friend in the Omar
costume, grateful to him for having recreated and freshened what I
had thought of as a conventional literary experience.
There comes a time when what was everybody's "read" is nobody's
read. Also - I speak for myself - when the Booker Prize list is
full of well-known names of which one has never heard. I was a
Booker Prize judge, years ago. I rose at six every day, and read
and read. On the doorstep, when it was warm enough. A fine cat who
now sleeps in the wood sat beside me.
We gave the prize to William Golding for his amazing sail to
Botany Bay, Rites of Passage, a novel in which the
passenger list gives little away. He looked like an old sea captain
himself, blue-eyed and bristly. I thought of St Paul when he
offered to be thrown overboard, en route to Rome.
Seafaring was as risky as skyfaring. "But then," as a philosophical
old friend once said, "if you didn't take risks, you wouldn't go
It is bliss, now, not to go far. To stay in the summer garden.
To pack the passport away. To pray. To think of what to say on
Trinity 7. It is Samuel, of course, Samuel the kingmaker. The
little boy who heard God's voice in the night. "I am here, Lord."
The little boy who would go far.
Books bake on the lawn, their leaves turned by warm winds.
Beyond the garden, onions for the supermarket are irrigated by
dazzling jets. It is full summer.