“Gabble-gabble,… brethren, …gabble – gabble!”
My window frames forest and heather.
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
Not knowing not much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.
Outside it blows wetter and wetter,
The tossing trees never stay still.
I shift my elbows to catch better
The full round and sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro
In silence like a shadow-show.
The parson’s voice runs like a river
Over smooth rocks, I like this church:
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is like a chain
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”
I add the hymns up, over and over,
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (look! there’s a plover!
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?
The red light from his mantle passes
Across the broad memorial brasses.
It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,
With ugly serious people linking
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.
Alright then, in deference to recent comments, here is a belated 2¢ worth.
The marvelous thing about this poem – besides its astringency, vibrancy and precocious irreverence, is the that it observes the present moment with the use of all the natural senses – excepting perhaps smell – the absence of which, in the close confines of a weather-beset English congregation might have been more than just a qualified mercy.
It is interesting for me to see Graves use the characteristically very female literary device of ‘Stream of Consciousness’, in order to drive his poem, and in addition, to place before us the streaming thoughts of this very appealing child.
Others, of course most notably James Joyce, plundered the form and made off with the loot to his great remunerative and professional advantage, (though Dorothy Richardson herself, who invented the style, died in poverty) but I don’t think that before I came across this poem, I had found Graves to have adopted this particular style.
And why shouldn’t it after all? Neotony is of course one of the outstanding hallmarks of cognitively superiorly developed species — and the skills and perceptions we form in childhood repeatedly prove to be the fertile ground from which our most vigorous adult perceptions spring. The works of Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are replete with childhood recollections, retrieved, re-worked and re-inserted directly into their novels and short-stories.
The consciousness in Grave’s poem is brisk, with no trace of the laxity one expects to find in the company of wandering thoughts frequently provoked when in boring surroundings. There is a huge appreciation for each of the things which rise up to charm engage and captivate the mind, both inside the church and in the rain-sodden world outside.
The trees swaying in the drunken ecstasy of their prayers are in stark, melodramatic contrast to the parson’s trite and banal addresses: this service after all, is demonstrably missing the uninhibited histrionics of Pentecostal fervour , and instead asserts the very staid, steadfast and carefully measured progress of the Church of England ritual.
The boy likes the weighted substantiality of his place of worship, which is echoed reassuringly in the well put-together pews and their sober solidity. This is unsurprising, because even as children find them to be dull and restrictive, the steady reliable social norms and structures which surround them tend to provide children with the stable white noise in the backgrounds of their childhoods, over which the real orchestra of original thinking can make its more complex music.
The windows in my own childhood church (staunchly Methodist) I remember as being above my head level and translucent, so as to permit the entrance of light but not of distractions. This might have been a very good thing for us schoolgirls for whom attendance at two church services on Sundays was compulsory. Nevertheless we contrived to while away the tedious hours playing with our handkerchiefs, folding and unfolding the corners to make little roses, and surreptitiously scraping the beeswax off the pews to form into little grey balls, as prisoners are said in the past to have rolled up their prison bread as a means of keeping count of the days, and we used these little grey masses to stick our collection money onto the backs of the pews which faced us.
The hymns were always curious and wonderful – I remember most of them even now. They were never the anæmic, politically correct pablum one hears today, but settled and confident in doctrinal assurance. They were firmly unembarrassed in their assertions and prejudices. One hymn in particular comes to mind – “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which had a verse in which Ceylon was described as being a place “Where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.” We all sang these lines imperturbably and without a trace of disquiet.
As a product of a British Colonial upbringing, I absorbed much of its calm certainties in the love of order which expresses itself in my tastes even today. When I say ‘order’ I don’t mean the staleness of unquestioned assumptions etc, but the beauty and balance required in order to make coherent the fast flowing current of thought and give it the structure it needs to stand up as a piece of writing. Respect for order is something I always recognise and appreciate in a Grave’s poem: Order such as can take the onrush of thoughts and usher them in diligent retrospect into the necessary complements of stanzas, rhymes, metres etc needed to make a poem, but with the unobtrusive practicality which places such linguistic implements in attendance of the main subject so to speak, so that they stand like attentive guardians who watch a child at play without interfering, unless she appears to be about to stumble into the deep end of the fish pond.
This Robert Graves does as he does everything else – vibrantly, efficiently, admirably and believably in matters of original insight and thinking – even in a deceptively simple little poem such as this. Graves brought the same degree of Lexical, Philological and Orthographic polish and rigour to his prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, which is why in these times of passive and negligent reading, he is not nearly as appreciated as other writers who are far less deserving of recognition.