……There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson 1842
Not everyone feels the love in classic poetry, but I do. I was reminded of one of my favorites today watching Helen Mirren read Ulysses to Stephen Colbert as he was moved to tears by the last few lines of this beautiful poem. I remember studying Tennyson with my Grandmother Cleland, and was taken back to the kitchen at 417 13th Street, to a long formica table with a booth. I loved the smell of whatever delicious meal she was cooking and the smell of rewarmed coffee……. She loved Tennyson, Wordsworth, Bronte, Yeats, Keats, Blake and the list could go on and on. When I went to college I was so excited to bring home my Norton Anthology of English Literature and read aloud to her. Her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be and she said that reading aloud was the best way to practice bringing the words to life. We would dissect each poem and discuss the prose from all directions. Oh how I miss her! I read The Tiger, William Wordsworth, I loved reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
“Ha! ha!” quoth he, “full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row.”
“Ha! Ha! quoth he, “full plain I see, The Devil knows how to row.” She would laugh and say “I just bet he does!” The time spent at the kitchen table was always good for my soul.
This time of year I am reminded of her love of Robert Frost. When her mind would wander as she aged, I would call and ask her what she was doing? Sometimes she would say, “Well, I had breakfast with Robert Frost. He’s such a kind man.” I thought that she was having a “spell” and maybe wasn’t going to remember our conversation or anything current. As I have aged, I am sure that I misinterpreted her comment. I am sure she had indeed had breakfast with Robert Frost. I have no doubt that as she drank her coffee that she had her book open to read, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening or The Pasture. Frost was an author that she had taught to many, many young students in a small, one room school house in Eastern Kansas. She loved to teach English Literature, Grammar, Math, all subjects grades K-12. She loved to tell of riding her horse, May, to school in the cold winters and arriving early to build the fire in the pot belly stove so that her “children” could stay warm and concentrate. She told how some of the boys were only able to attend school in the dark winter months because they were needed on the farm all fall and spring. She believed that education was the most important gift a person could give themselves. You didn’t have to have a college degree to be educated, in fact some of the smartest people I know are not college graduates, but that you had to never stop learning, reading, studying, being inquisitive. I was so blessed to be able to have her as my private tutor for so many years. When others struggled to conjugate sentences, I was flying through that with flying colors!! I never understood why I needed to know how to conjugate, but I could do it quite easily!! I think that I would disappoint her today with my freestyle writing!!
Memorization of stories and poetry was a skill that I honed well because I admired her ability to tell a story. Every Christmas she would be asked by different groups to recite a Christmas story for their programs. My favorite was The Littlest Angel, a story about a little boy who arrives in Heaven before his time. He becomes homesick and lonely and travels back to earth with his puppy, Halo, to retrieve a gift for the Baby Jesus. This book by Charles Tazewell probably isn’t the sweet story that I thought at the time, but Gram had a way of telling this story so that it was more that God gave this angel a task that made his job the most important job ever and the fear of dying as a child was removed. I know full well that she added her own bits to the story making it even better than the original, but what it gave me was the gift of voice and words. I am nowhere the story teller that she was, but the gravel in my voice oftentimes reminds me of her!!
She gifted that talent to my Dad who was able to memorize anything he read. When my Gram passed away in 2000, my Dad, with voice trembling, recited the very first poem that she had him memorize as a little boy. That poem concluded her service and left me in tears. It is the same poem that I memorized when I was 5 and to this day can say it, feel it and be moved by the memories it brings.