Sunday, 1 November 2020

Who made honey long ago...

Sometimes I like to pretend that I have a thin vein of culture running through my body, and so I sometimes immerse myself into reading some classical prose. Today's 'offering came courtesy of Edward Thomas's 'South Country', written in 1909. It is his love letter to the southern counties east of Devon and south of London. Thomas is highly revered amongst the literati, and is often quoted and name-checked. There was a particular passage that struck me...

"...sees the house behind them. The wayfarer knows nothing of those who built them and those who live therein, of those who planted the trees just so and not otherwise, of the causes that shaped the green, any more than of those who reaped and threshed the barley, and picked and dried and packed the hops that made the ale at the 'White Hart'"

It struck me because this is exactly how I react to seeing an old abandoned house, a wooden barn, a lone tree in a field. The questions flow and my imagination is fired-up. How old? Who built it? What was the weather like when the roof tiles were being laid? Hot and sunny or did they have to shelter from rain? Who lived there? What animals took refuge in the barn? Who sat under the leafy boughs to eat a simple lunch? How many storms has this tree seen off and which birds have nested in it?

Such mental wonderings and daydreams have been with me for as long as I can remember. The first time that I was aware that others had committed such thoughts to paper was when I was reading 'Tess of the d'Urbevilles' by Thomas Hardy. He describes Tess observing a brick wall and wondering who had laid a particular brick that she is studying. That really hit home.

There is another literary nod towards such thoughts in one of my favourite poems, 'Forefathers' by Edmund Blunden:

Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen's moon their wooings lit.

From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone - what men they were
These their cottages declare.

Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within -
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land -
I'm in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.

I cannot read that without a shiver going through my body, his recognition of lives having been lived and then departed, the modest marks of which are there if you care to look, but as to the identity of these people, well, they may never be known to the inquisitive passer-by.

They were all written within thirty years of each other (1891-1920), and as to whether the timing has anything to do with such sentiment I do not know. We all play out our lives - some brief, some long - and that we leave clues behind when we are gone, clues to where we have been, and what we have done, is comforting. There is no such thing as a modest life - just look around you and see the tell tale signs of the millions that have gone before us - just as we will leave the same for those yet to come.

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