DIARY: Spring has arrived in England and we are enjoying the daffodils, bluebells and blossoms everywhere.
We’re driving about the English countryside in the mighty Corsa, down country lanes where the wing mirrors on our sub-compact Vauxhall brush the hedgerows on both sides of the car. From time to time we meet someone coming the other way and there seems to be an innate sense of who will slow down and pull over into a miniscule and unofficial lay-by and who will bluster forward. Mostly, it’s me pulling over and being polite. The hedgerows are largely hawthorn, also known as May blossom, with a snowfall of tiny white flowers heralding the arrival of spring. In the autumn the hedges develop glossy red fruits which feed native species of birds and help them through the winter. In many places we see hedges being replaced after decades of destruction and neglect, a sure sign that people are finally awakening to the need for a healthy butterfly and bee population.
In the grassy verges around our village in Yorkshire, and in many other places as we drive from North to South and back again, are swathes of daffodils, not just a few but hundreds and thousands of them. Between our home in Thorpe Salvin and neighbouring Harthill, on a back lane, a farmer has planted more than a mile of daffs. A few years ago, at the height of the display, vandals cut them all down. Diane came along just after the destruction and she and her mum scooped up armfuls of dying daffs and filled vases all over the cottage. The story made the local and then the national television news and as a result the Dutch bulb growers sent the farmer thousands more bulbs for him to plant the following year. Now we are reaping the benefit of all that glory.
As we pass by woodlands and peek in to their shady mysteries, carpets of bluebells stain the ground. Everyone seems to be respecting the no picking laws and we walk among them trying not to crush even one stem of fairy bells.
Beside the magnificent lime tree avenue at Clumber Park, part of The Dukeries, the longest of its kind at two miles long, planted with a double row of nearly 1,300 trees, vast patches of bluebells thrive. Then to cap it all wild plums and crab apples pop into full pink and white blossom in village gardens, highways and by-ways, great waterfalls of flowery blooms cascading from the naked branches ahead of the tiny budding leaves and filling the air with a heavenly scent.
I’m trying to remember the poem by Coleridge, I think, which starts “Oh to be in England, now that spring is here …” Once, I knew these lines by heart, but now I can hardly remember a simple rhyme. Perhaps my memory is slipping. Somewhere, I imagine, there’s a poem about that too, but I can’t bring it to mind.
Diane, usually spot on with lyrics, contributes “England’s green and pleasant land,” the closing stanza of William Blake’s wonderful poem, later to become the anthem Jerusalem. Wrong poem, I respond, but she confounds me by singing the whole hymn in her lovely, tuneful, alto voice. Nothing wrong with her memory. Here it is:
Jerusalem by William Blake
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
Nearby Sheffield’s dark steel mills are all gone now, and the air is once again more breathable. The land is green indeed, but also startlingly bright yellow, from the fields of rape seed, which Canadians coyly rename Canola. They remind me of a host of golden daffodils and another English poet:
Daffodils by William Wordsorth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Home again, I check the Internet and find I have totally misquoted my opening line, and even named the wrong author. Mea culpa.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.
It’s Robert Browning, of course, writing from the perspective of a homesick traveller (and as an ex-pat, who could be more homesick, but only occasionally, than I) yearning for the English spring, who penned the famous lines, now corrected:
Home thoughts from abroad by Robert Browning
Oh, to be in England,
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows –
Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Back in Toronto the land is still winter brown and spring is struggling to arrive. But at least my sailing boat has been launched while I was away and soon I’ll be out on the lake, the sails filled with a spring breeze. The memory thing bothers me and Diane reminds me of a poem by the American poet laureate:
Forgetfulness by Billy Collins
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
This article was originally published on May 10, 2014. All photographs by Nigel Napier-Andrews.