Robert Louis Stevenson: The Swing

This summer, my mother let me bring home a collection of old books that were my childhood favorites. Whenever I read them, I hear the words in her voice, and the spirit of many long-lost summer afternoons, piled around her on the couch with my little siblings, rises around me. I love that.

One I brought home is a well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It appears to have been printed in 1932, so it was already old in my little-girlhood.

On a side note, I learned in adulthood that RLS is related to another favorite author of mine, D. E. Stevenson, who mentions him in several of her books. Her characters quote him sometimes, and his poems find their way into the subtext.

What I love about this poem is how well the rhythm of the verses mimics that of the activity they describe. They swing up into the sky, hang there for the tiniest fraction of a second, and swing back again. Your muscle memory will quickly join your voice, and you will find yourself reading the poem in your chair as if you were reading it on the swing. Up in the air and down!

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown–

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!

Robert Louis Stevenson

This poem must have been a favorite of Stevenson’s or his reading public, because both the cover of the book (above) and the frontispiece (below) are illustrated with a little girl on a swing, and The Swing is the first poem in the book!

I especially like this poem at a time when we are all, more or less, living inside the garden wall. Like the child on the swing, we may catch glimpses of the outer world, only to drop again behind the wall. But in this poem at least, there’s a garden within that wall, and the child on the swing is both excited by the wider vista and content to return to the confines of home.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Decades later, I still remember it.

What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?

When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.

There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.

Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.

Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.

A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.

Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.

Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.

I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

and often is his gold complexion dimmed.

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade

when in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.

Sonnet 18 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
By William Shakespearehttp://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/by2g21, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.

Who Has Known Heights

This poem has lingered in the reaches of my consciousness for decades. I don’t recall where I first read it, only that I shared it with my Dad, who understood the feeling it conveyed.

Who Has Known Heights

Who has known heights and depths shall not again
Know peace – not as the calm heart knows
Low, ivied walls; a garden close;
An though he tread the humble ways of men
He shall not speak the common tongue again.

Who has known heights shall bear forevermore
An incommunicable thing
That hurts his heart, as if a wing
Beat at the portal, challenging;
And yet – lured by the gleam his vision wore –
Who once has trodden stars seeks peace no more.

Mary Brent Whiteside

I remember how strongly I felt, reading this poem, how well it expressed my experience then. But now that I’ve found it and read it again, after these decades of life have washed over me, I can see that it is no longer all of my experience.

I do seek peace now.

The heights and depths are there, but they exist more in my inward thoughts. I have learned to guard them, and I have learned that sometimes weariness trumps artistic exuberance.

The memory of those heights tinges my quest for peace with guilt sometimes, and I believe that’s good. I don’t want to be a seeker of peace at any price. I want only to maintain the balance I hadn’t yet discovered in those urgent younger days.

Whether I will or no, I exist within limits. I reread books I’ve read dozens of times. I decide not to watch a film I know will make me cry. I accept the spiritual poetry of scrubbing dirty dishes in warm water in a home of my own.

I choose my quests more cautiously, remembering that final victory may elude me or, more likely, appear in ways and times that can’t be prophesied.

Aunt Nadia’s House and “Sea Fever”

Memory works two ways for me. Sometimes, it’s linear. I remember a specific event and its context, and I’m sure both are plain facts. Sometimes, it’s associative. I remember things connectedly, and the power of association may overcome aspects of the original history.

This poem, “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, is strongly connected in my memory with my great Aunt Nadia’s house in Rockport, MA. The house was 300+ years old in parts, and a “witch” lived in the oldest room when it was a raw wooden cabin in the woods. I wonder about her. Continue reading