Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

10 July 2020: Poet’s Day 15

This week, I was going to pick poems about woods and forests, and then I considered the two examples I’d picked, and wondered if I wasn’t choosing ghost stories instead. I think that these poems all express a kind of wistful nostalgia. We start with Alfred Noyes, who evokes the long-ago days of Robin Hood with “A Song of Sherwood”, then Rudyard Kipling’s haunting “The Way Through the Woods” and finally I have an extract from “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith.

Poem 43. A Song of Sherwood

“Oberon, Oberon, rake away the gold, rake away the red leaves, roll away the mould, rake away the gold leaves, roll away the red, and wake Will Scarlett from his leafy forest bed.”

Alfred Noyes (1880—1958)

Sherwood in the twilight, is Robin Hood awake?
Grey and ghostly shadows are gliding through the brake,
Shadows of the dappled deer, dreaming of the morn,
Dreaming of a shadowy man that winds a shadowy horn.

Robin Hood is here again: all his merry thieves
Hear a ghostly bugle-note shivering through the leaves,
Calling as he used to call, faint and far away,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Merry, merry England has kissed the lips of June:
All the wings of fairyland were here beneath the moon,
Like a flight of rose-leaves fluttering in a mist
Of opal and ruby and pearl and amethyst.

Merry, merry England is waking as of old,
With eyes of blither hazel and hair of brighter gold:
For Robin Hood is here again beneath the bursting spray
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Love is in the greenwood building him a house
Of wild rose and hawthorn and honeysuckle boughs:
Love is in the greenwood, dawn is in the skies,
And Marian is waiting with a glory in her eyes.

Hark! The dazzled laverock climbs the golden steep!
Marian is waiting: is Robin Hood asleep?
Round the fairy grass-rings frolic elf and fay,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Oberon, Oberon, rake away the gold,
Rake away the red leaves, roll away the mould,
Rake away the gold leaves, roll away the red,
And wake Will Scarlett from his leafy forest bed.

Friar Tuck and Little John are riding down together
With quarter-staff and drinking-can and grey goose-feather.
The dead are coming back again, the years are rolled away
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Softly over Sherwood the south wind blows.
All the heart of England hid in every rose
Hears across the greenwood the sunny whisper leap,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?

Hark, the voice of England wakes him as of old
And, shattering the silence with a cry of brighter gold
Bugles in the greenwood echo from the steep,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?

Where the deer are gliding down the shadowy glen
All across the glades of fern he calls his merry men—
Doublets of the Lincoln green glancing through the May
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day—

Calls them and they answer: from aisles of oak and ash
Rings the Follow! Follow! and the boughs begin to crash,
The ferns begin to flutter and the flowers begin to fly,
And through the crimson dawning the robber band goes by.

Robin! Robin! Robin! All his merry thieves
Answer as the bugle-note shivers through the leaves,
Calling as he used to call, faint and far away,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

I found this poem, along with many others by Alfred Noyes, on Project Gutenberg where you can find practically all of his published works. I like it because there’s a rhythm to the words and the poem builds to a sort of crescendo as the spirits of the long-dead (if not mythical) men in Lincoln green are resurrected for us. The verse reminds me of the feeling one gets in a really big wood—that sensation that the world of a Midsummer Night’s Dream may not be all that far away and the legends of the past need only a slight breath of belief to return from their rest.

Alfred Noyes was an English writer of poetry, short stories and plays. He was born in Wolverhampton but his family moved to West Wales when he was four years old, and the mountains and coastal regions inspired him mightily. He went to Oxford but failed to get his degree because he was negotiating publication of his first book of poems on the crucial day of his final exams. In the following years, he published five more books, an epic poem about Sir Francis Drake and in 1911 a play, “Sherwood”, which was reissued fifteen years later as “Robin Hood”. “A Song of Sherwood” was also written in 1911.

His first wife was an American and the couple travelled widely in America, where he gave lectures at major universities. Described by some of his critics as a militarist and jingoist, Noyes was actually a pacifist, though convinced that if conflict was inevitable, then fighting was the only recourse. He was unable to serve as a soldier in either of the World Wars due to his eyesight, but he assisted John Buchan with the propaganda effort in the First World War and wrote patriotic material in the Second, as well as a science fiction novel, “The Last Man”, which may be the first novel to introduce a doomsday weapon, and is thought to have influenced George Orwell in his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

After the war, he retired to California but eventually moved to the Isle of Wight where he died of polio in June 1958. He is also known for “The Highwayman” which I do intend to keep until Halloween, and loved by children for “Daddy Fell into the Pond”:

Daddy Fell into the Pond

Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day,
And there seemed to be nothing beyond,

THEN

Daddy fell into the pond!

And everyone’s face grew merry and bright,
And Timothy danced for sheer delight.
“Give me the camera, quick, oh quick!
He’s crawling out of the duckweed.”

Click!

Then the gardener suddenly slapped his knee,
And doubled up, shaking silently,
And the ducks all quacked as if they were daft
And it sounded as if the old drake laughed.
O, there wasn’t a thing that didn’t respond

WHEN

Daddy fell into the pond!

Poem 44. The Way Through the Woods

“And now you would never know there was once a road through the woods before they planted the trees.”

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate.
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods….

But there is no road through the woods.

This seems like a ghost story, and perhaps I should have left it until Halloween.

The first stanza describes beautifully how nature unravels the works of man, given long enough to do it, to the point where only a person intimately familiar with the area can see where the old road ran; the second stanza suggests that more lingers than a pattern that suggests the old right of way—it also brings to mind that sensation of other worlds one may sense when alone in any place, but especially woods and forests with their limited sight-lines and the suggestion perhaps of furtive movement at the corner of one’s vision.

I think this is another great example of Kipling’s abilities.

Poem 45. Excerpt from “The Deserted Village”

“But now the sounds of population fail, no cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale, no busy steps the grass-grown footway tread,”

Oliver Goldsmith (1730—1774)

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain:
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But chok’d with sedges, works its weedy way.
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mould’ring wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away, thy children leave the land.

Sweet was the sound, when oft at evening’s close
Up yonder hill the village murmur rose;
There, as I pass’d with careless steps and slow,
The mingling notes came soften’d from below;
The swain responsive as the milk-maid sung,
The sober herd that low’d to meet their young;
The noisy geese that gabbled o’er the pool,
The playful children just let loose from school;
The watchdog’s voice that bay’d the whisp’ring wind,
And the loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind;
These all in sweet confusion sought the shade,
And fill’d each pause the nightingale had made.
But now the sounds of population fail,
No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,
No busy steps the grass-grown foot-way tread,
For all the bloomy flush of life is fled.
All but yon widow’d, solitary thing
That feebly bends beside the plashy spring;
She, wretched matron, forc’d in age, for bread,
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,
To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,
To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn;
She only left of all the harmless train,
The sad historian of the pensive plain.

This poet has captured his memories of the past and eloquently describes the village before it fell on evil times. The picture he draws is very detailed—this is only a short extract from the full poem.

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish writer of novels, plays and poems. He is best-known as the author of the novel “The Vicar of Wakefield”, the play “She Stoops to Conquer” and this poem. He is also supposedly the author of the children’s tale “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes”. He was born in Ireland and attended Trinity College, eventually graduating as a Bachelor of Arts in 1749 despite being expelled in 1747 for rioting and showing little benefit save for expensive tastes in clothes and a talent for singing and playing the flute. He eventually settled in London where his prolific hack work eventually got the attention of Samuel Johnson and led to more settled employment. He continued his dissolute lifestyle, and he was described as an “inspired idiot” by Horace Walpole; a spendthrift, he spent and gave his money away freely. He died of a kidney infection in London and was buried in Temple Church, though the monument to him was destroyed in an air raid in 1940.

The Deserted Village is an appeal to the English to preserve the old settlements and ways of England—Goldsmith had witnessed the destruction of an ancient village by a wealthy man who desired the land for an ornamental garden.

Johnson’s epitaph for Goldsmith is suitably eloquent: “Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant.”