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Word from Wormingford

15 March 2013

Ronald Blythe listens to a reading of a Walt Whitman poem

A PAIR of jays, dressed to the nines, swing warily from the holly bush - although the whole village knows that the white cat has never caught a thing in her life, being sloth incarnate. Yet the fine birds look down on my feast of crusts and old Christmas nuts with caution. The day is still, its light subdued. We have to read Jeremiah and John, both good authors.

At the Suffolk Poetry Society meeting we listened to an American woman reading from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. President Lincoln has been assassinated in the theatre, but the violence has been contained, and somehow robbed of its lasting evil. The quiet New England voice says: "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd . . . I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring." It is one of those openings which capture the imagination.

The Connecticut reader asks: "Have you been to Connecticut?"

"Yes, but long ago. Though not in the fall."

When Lincoln's coffin continues on its way, it might well have been down my farm track:

Amid lanes and through old
woods, where lately the violets
peep'd from the ground,
spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each
side of the lanes, passing the
endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat,
every grain from its shroud in
the dark-brown fields uprisen. . . 

When the Suffolk farmers emigrated to New England in the 17th century, they took their seed corn with them, plus the seed of our wild flowers - or weeds, as we call them. Heartbreaking, it must have been. Did lilacs go, too? In order to bloom for a murdered president?

I tidy paths in warm sunshine. All the birds sing. Dutifully, I read Jeremiah and John, seeing what they have to say. Jeremiah despairs at our incorrigible nature: "Can the leopard change his spots?" John records Jesus saying: "I am the light of the world."

It is Lent 4. Geese scream over to the river. Neighbours walk by. We tell each other the obvious: that the afternoon is warm and wonderful, that it is good to be out. In the evening, I read Kilvert's Diary for mid-March: "This morning I received a nice letter from dear Louie Williams, who is barmaid at the Bell Hotel, Gloucester. She enclosed a piece of poetry entitled 'Clyro Water' and signed Eos Gwynddwr which she had cut out of last week's Hereford Times, not knowing the verses were mine. . ."

Poor Kilvert; when he asked his father, should he publish his poems? the answer was a definite no. What old Mr Kilvert would have made of the great diary, the Lord only knows. The Welsh border, to which, one way or another, I seem to become more and more attached, is haunted by the robust and yet short-lived Francis Kilvert. How hard he worked! How far he walked! How self-revealing he was.

When he walked to Credenhill on a "lovely and cloudless" March day in 1879, he would not have known of the existence of Thomas Traherne. This amazes me - that the wonderful prose-poet who died in 1674 should not have been read until my lifetime.

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