When Shall We Meet Again?

How many times Spring blossoms meek
Have faded on the land
Since last I kissed that pretty cheek,
Caressed that happy hand.
Eight time the green's been painted white
With daisies in the grass
Since I looked on thy eyes so bright,
And pressed my bonny lass.

The ground lark sung about the farms,
The blackbird in the wood,
When fast locked in each other's arms
By hedgerow thorn we stood.
It was a pleasant Sabbath day,
The sun shone bright and round,
His light through dark oaks passed, and lay
Like gold upon the ground.

How beautiful the blackbird sung,
And answered soft the thrush;
And sweet the pearl-like dew-drops hung
Upon the white thorn bush.
O happy day, eight years ago!
We parted without pain:
The blackbird sings, primroses blow;
When shall we meet again?
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Graves of Infants

Infants' gravemounds are steps of angels, where
Earth's brightest gems of innocence repose.
God is their parent, so they need no tear;
He takes them to his bosom from earth's woes,
A bud their lifetime and a flower their close.
Their spirits are the Iris of the skies,
Needing no prayers; a sunset's happy close.
Gone are the bright rays of their soft blue eyes;
Flowers weep in dew-drops o'er them, and the gale gently sighs.

Their lives were nothing but a sunny shower,
Melting on flowers as tears melt from the eye.
Their deaths were dew-drops on heaven's amaranthine bower
Was tolled on flowers as Summer gales went by.
They bowed and trembled, yet they heaved no sigh,
And the sun smiled to show the end was well.
Infants have nought to weep for ere they die;
All prayers are needless, beads they need not tell,
White flowers their mourners are, Nature their passing bell.
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From the pen of Ronnie Blythe

[Ronnie at the John Clare Society Festival - July 2006]

A scholar has sent me his take on a John Clare poem, "Graves of Infants". Simultaneously in the press, I read about the Pope's having to deal with limbo. Look up limbo. Oh, my goodness. "Those in limbo are excluded from supernatural beatitude, but according to St Thomas Aquinas enjoy full natural happiness. The existence of limbo is a matter of theological opinion on which the Church has never pronounced definitely either way."

But then we come to limbus infantium - unbaptised babies who, although born in original sin, are innocent of personal guilt. In fact, although many a child was too ill to make the font, it would have had the midwife's sign of the Cross on its forehead, and her speedy "In the name of the Father ..." the minute it emerged, infant mortality and her grubby hands being what they were.

"Limbo ... mumbo-jumbo ...", murmured a voice on the radio. I suppose that the Church does have to turn out its medieval attic now and then. Here comes John Clare, however, father of nine, survivor of twins, and sanest of poets where children, and what we now dub ecology, are concerned. Rural religion and economics have frequently shown their madness when we compare them with what he preached.

In "Graves of Infants", he enters the vast sadness of 19th-century child mortality. You raised some, you lost some, they said. Victorian literature is full of what most families experienced, the death-beds of boys and girls. Country churchyards are full of children - city ones, too, of course. Should a child die now, it shakes the entire parish. Whether by disease or accident, it is unnatural to us. But not long ago it was entirely natural; for nature itself was tragic, as Clare knew all too terribly.

In June 1844, from Northampton Asylum - his "Mad House" - came his reconciling conclusion to the common fate of many children. It was the only answer that he could make sense of. Brief life or long life, they were no more than aspects of nature.

God is their parent, they need no tear...
A bud their life-time, and a flower to close...
All prayers are needless - beads they need not tell;
White flowers their mourners are, nature their passing bell.

[Church Times - Friday, 20th October, 2006 (excerpt)] Posted by Picasa

The Shepherd's Tree

Huge elm, with rifted trunk all notched and scarred,
Like to a warrior's destiny! I love
To stretch me often on thy shadowed sward,
And hear the laugh of summer leaves above;
Or on thy buttressed roots to sit, and lean
In careless attitude, and there reflect
On times, and deeds, and darings that have been--
Old castaways, now swallowed in neglect;
While thou art towering in thy strength of heart,
Stirring the soul to vain imaginings,
In which life's sordid being hath no part.
The wind of that eternal ditty sings,
Humming of future things, that burn the mind
To leave some fragment of itself behind.
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Remembrances (IV)

By Langley Bush I roam, but the bush hath left its hill,
On Cowper Green I stray, tis a desert strange and chill,
And the spreading Lea Close oak, ere decay had penned its will,
To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fell a prey,
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak's narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again,
Enclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors--though the brook is running still
It runs a sicker brook, cold and chill.

O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men,
I had watched her night and day, be sure, and never slept agen,
And when she turned to go, O I'd caught her mantle then,
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay;
Ay, knelt and worshipped on, as love in beauty's bower,
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon a flower,
And gave her heart my posies, all cropt in a sunny hour,
As keepsakes and pledges all to never fade away;
But love never heeded to treasure up the may,
So it went the common road to decay.
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Remembrances (III)

Here was commons for their hills, where they seek for freedom still,
Though every common's gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners--O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old Sneap Green, Puddock's Nook and Hilly Snow,
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view,
Where we threw the pismire crumbs when we'd nothing else to do,
All levelled like a desert by the never weary plough,
All banished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
And settled here for ever on its brow.

O I never thought that joys would run away from boys,
Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such summer joys;
But alack I never dreamed that the world had other toys
To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone,
Till I found the pleasure past and a winter come at last,
Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast
And boyhood's pleasing haunt like a blossom in the blast
Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and done,
Till vanished was the morning spring and set the summer sun
And winter fought her battle strife and won.
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Remembrances (II)

[Crossberry Way in 2004]

When jumping time away on old Crossberry Way,
And eating awes like sugarplums ere they had lost the may,
And skipping like a leveret before the peep of day
On the roly poly up and downs of pleasant Swordy Well,
When in Round Oak's narrow lane as the south got black again
We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain,
With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain;
How delicious was the dinner time on such a showery day!
O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away,
The ancient pulpit trees and the play.

When for school oer Little Field with its brook and wooden brig,
Where I swaggered like a man though I was not half so big,
While I held my little plough though twas but a willow twig,
And drove my team along made of nothing but a name,
"Gee hep" and "hoit" and "woi"--O I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind,
While I see little mouldiwarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains,
And nature hides her face while they're sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains.
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Remembrances (I)

Summer's pleasures they are gone like to visions every one,
And the cloudy days of autumn and of winter cometh on.
I tried to call them back, but unbidden they are gone
Far away from heart and eye and forever far away.
Dear heart, and can it be that such raptures meet decay?
I thought them all eternal when by Langley Bush I lay,
I thought them joys eternal when I used to shout and play
On its bank at "clink and bandy," "chock" and "taw" and "ducking stone,"
Where silence sitteth now on the wild heath as her own
Like a ruin of the past all alone.

When I used to lie and sing by old Eastwell's boiling spring,
When I used to tie the willow boughs together for a swing,
And fish with crooked pins and thread and never catch a thing,
With heart just like a feather, now as heavy as a stone;
When beneath old Lea Close oak I the bottom branches broke
To make our harvest cart like so many working folk,
And then to cut a straw at the brook to have a soak.
O I never dreamed of parting or that trouble had a sting,
Or that pleasures like a flock of birds would ever take to wing,
Leaving nothing but a little naked spring.
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