June 13 is the birthday of William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is what he heard ‘in the deep heart’s core’ while standing on London’s ‘pavements grey’ —
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine-bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’
Lines so familiar and yet always fresh and new.
For many of us, though, it is not within our gift to ‘arise and go now,’ so I have been thinking about the gifts of travelers who have shared their journeys with us through their writings. In fact, “A Time of Gifts” is the title of the first of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s many travel books, this one being the record of his journey on foot across Europe in the mid 1930s as it prepared for war. As well as being a gifted writer, he is the most observant and sensitive of traveling companions and probably the most charming of any you will ever meet.
Another of my perennial favorites among pioneer explorers/travelers is Freya Stark. Out of an early life blighted by tragedy and potential limitation, she became the first Western woman to travel alone through the Middle and Far East. Her writings, with their humanity and deep insights, give us a wide window on that world, some of it vanished, most of it present with us today. “Alexander’s Path” and “Dust in the Lion’s Paw” are among many that come to mind.
Yet of all the classic travel books, Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” stands out as a surprising delight. It’s an enthralling account by a young and inquiring mind venturing into the unknown with note book in hand — notes that would change our world forever.
This was one of the favorite books of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet possibly without peer among modern writers of travel poems. Her first poem in her first book is ‘The Map,’ and for most of her life she was a traveler, physically and spiritually, always looking, like her ‘Sandpiper,’ for ‘something, something, something.’ In her poem ‘Questions of Travel’ she reflects on what it means to be a tourist:
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/in this strangest of theaters?
And her answer is in the last line of the earlier poem ‘Arrival at Santos,’ /’We leave Santos at once;/ we are driving to the interior.’ She was, in Herman Melville’s words, “a thought diver,” a traveler on a quest, asking questions of herself and us, the reader, not the tourist with ‘immodest demands for a different world,/and a better life, and complete comprehension/ of both at last, and immediately,’ (again ‘Arrival at Santos’)
In her quest to ‘go to the interior,’ Elizabeth Bishop was deeply read in the history and culture of Brazil, a quest that took her on a journey up the Amazon, a journey which, years later, produced her quintessential poem of Brazil, ‘Santarém.’ ‘That golden evening I really wanted to go no further;/ more than anything else I wanted to stay awhile/ in that conflux of two great rivers, Tapajos, Amazon,’ …..’I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place./ Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers sprung from the Garden of Eden? No, that was four/ and they’d diverged. Here only two/and coming together’……’in that watery, dazzling dialectic.’
There is an echo of Yeats in the yearning for a place as well as, in the language and tone, echoes of Milton. But, being Bishop, she ends her reminiscence on a note of practicality and humor, bringing herself, and us, back into the real world, waking from the dream of Santarém just as Eve woke from her dream in the Garden. ‘Then- my ship’s whistle blew. I couldn’t stay.’
The poem ends with the description of a gift of an empty wasp’s nest, ‘small, exquisite, clean matte white/ and hard as stucco’ — that she had admired ‘In the blue pharmacy’ the pharmacist had given her. In the closing lines of the poem we too wake from this memory of Santarém, its vibrant palette of blues and yellows and vignettes of life being so fully lived:
‘Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr. Swan,/ Dutch, the retiring head of Philips Electric,/ really a very nice old man,/ who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,/ asked, ‘What’s that ugly thing?
And so, for poet and for reader, the journey continues and the world awaits, but, as in so many of her poems, it ends on an open note, a music that continues.
In the reference to the Garden of Eden, another open note, another journey brought to mind by ‘Santarém’, involves the closing lines of Paradise Lost, not as an ending but a new beginning for Adam and Eve:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
This is the narrator, but within the poem, it is Eve who speaks the last heroic lines: ‘In me is no delay; with thee to go/ Is to stay here; without thee here to stay/ Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me/ Art all things under heaven, all places thou’ (Paradise Lost, Book XII ll. 615-618).
Circling back to May, you might recall that we left Ruth standing ‘amid the alien corn’ ‘and it is her promise to her bereft and beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, that is echoed here by Eve ‘…. whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest I will lodge’. And as with Eve, a new beginning for Ruth.
But all journeys are not forward, as we learn from the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan, whose 400th anniversary, like Andrew Marvell’s, is celebrated this year. In his lyric ‘The Retreat’ he expresses the longing to return to his soul’s first home.
O, how I long to travel back /And tread again that ancient track!
Within a tight structure of tetrameter rhyming couplets, we are offered a moment of private grace transmuted into art. So finely made, this poem reminds me of one of those details in a stained glass window that calls for our close attention, or an exquisite carving hidden away in the organ loft of a medieval cathedral, awaiting the seeing eye of the curious traveler:
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.
But let’s return to today and Sebastian Junger’s new book “Freedom” that tells of the journey of four companions seeking freedom and healing from the noise and trauma of war that they have suffered.
Surely a journey of the foot and of the heart.
Belinda deKay is the recently retired former director of Stonington Free Library.