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Columnists >

Word from Wormingford

by Ronald Blythe

Posted: 15 Aug 2014 @ 12:08

Ronald Blythe returns from matins to find three poets in his garden

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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 anywhere."

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.

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