Where late the sweet birds sang

This must be the best reflection on autumn, life and love:

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare

Book day!

Yesterday, the tenth of October was  Literature Day in Finland – how brilliant! This is something I wrote last year:

Finns  don’t have to fly the national flag on Literature Day, but they are encouraged to do so, and it struck me that it would be a great idea to have something similar over here. I don’t mean anything like national Book Day where children dress up as  characters from books – although I guess that could be an aspect of it, but I mean a day to celebrate the wonderful achievement of writers from Britain.

In Finland, the date was chosen because it was the birthday of Alexis Kivi, who is recognised as one of the greatest Finnish writers of all times. His real name was Alexis Stenvell and he was born in 1834; he wrote plays, but is perhaps best remembered for a novel called ‘Seven Brothers’ which was published in 1870, two years before his death at the early age of thirty-eight.

Kivi was born in 1834 and while at university became involved with the theatre; his first play was  Kullervo and was inspired by the national epic, Kalevala. He went on to write twelve plays altogether, and he was a poet, but he is most remembered for his one novel, ‘Seitsemän Veljestä’, ‘Seven Brothers’ which took him nearly ten years to write. One of the significant things about the novel is that it was written in Finnish; up until then most writers used Swedish.

If we had a National Literature day, when would it be held? There are so many dates in contention:

  • January 25th is already celebrated in Scotland and by Scots people everywhere as the birth date of Robbie Burns in 1759, he died July 21st 1796
  • February 7th when Dickens was born in 1812 or when he died in 1870, June 9th
  • April 17th, Henry Vaughan was born in 1621 in Wales
  • April 23rd to commemorate Shakespeare, 1564-1616 – but he is already commemorated on this day – and it’s St George’s Day, and it’s the anniversary of the death of Henry Vaughan in 1695
  • May 22nd 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh – he died in England in 1930 on July 7th
  • August 15th – Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771; he died in Melrose on September 21st 1832
  • October 25 – the great 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died 1400 in London, (no-one knows exactly when he was born)
  • October 27, 1914 Dylan Thomas was born; he died  November 9, 1953
  • November 9th when John Milton was born in 1608 – or December 8th when he dies, in 1674
  • November 13th one of my favourite story-tellers, Robert Louis Stephenson was born, also in Edinburgh, and died in Samoa December 3rd 1894

So quite a selection of dates – and I’m sure other people would think of more! So here is the section, bear in mind time of year, other festivities about the same time and clashes with other special days:

  • January 25th birth of Robbie Burns
  • February 7th birth of Dickens
  • April 17th birth Henry Vaughan
  • April 23rd Shakespeare’s birth and death, death of Henry Vaughan
  • May 22nd birth of Arthur Conan Doyle
  •  June 9th death of Dickens
  • July 7th death of Arthur Conan Doyle
  • July 21st  death of Robbie Burns
  • August 15th birth of Sir Walter Scott
  •  September 21st death of Arthur Conan Doyle
  • October 25 death of Geoffrey Chaucer
  • October 27 birth of Dylan Thomas
  • November 9th birth of John Milton, death of Dylan Thomas
  • November 13th birth of Robert Louis Stephenson
  • December 3rd death of Robert Louis Stephenson
  • December 8th death of John Milton

 

To hear with eyes

It can’t be Shakespeare’s birthday and not celebrate it with a sonnet!

XXIII

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Follow this link to find an interesting commentary:

http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/23

Poetry month – proud pied April

Tomorrow is the 1st of April, April Fool’s Day and also the start of poetry month; this idea was started in the USA by the Academy of American Poets, a wonderful organisation with incredible on-line resources. It was started in 1999 and I properly started implementing the ideas in my classroom in 2002 when I began to teach in a school for young people who were out of mainstream education. Nearly all the students enjoyed poetry – writing it more than reading it, I do have to say! So the American Academy of Poets was an absolute gold-mine of ideas for me and my students and opened their eyes – and mine too, to a whole range of poetry not normally seen in schools. Unfortunately as the National Curriculum began to apply to us, we were restricted in our materials, and to my mind the curriculum became narrow and wasn’t able to embrace the different needs of different young people.

So on the eve of poetry month, here is something from the master of the sonnet:

Sonnet XCVIII

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

https://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/national-poetry-month-faq

When daisies pied and violets blue

I saw some violets yesterday, they were just growing on a grassy bank, a whole crowd of them in the sunshine, and i was reminded of the old flower seller who used to sit in Petty Cury in Cambridge calling ‘Vi’lets! Lovely vi’lets! Vi’lets! Lovely vi’lets!

When daisies pied and violets blue

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo! – O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo! – O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, which is either January 5th or January 6th is the traditional day for taking down Christmas decorations; the tree goes back outside in its pot, the baubles and tinsel is all put away in boxes and stowed in the garage, the last of the pine needles are hoovered up, the cards are unpinned from their ribbons and sorted… and suddenly the house seems dull and echoey.

Twelfth Night is also the Feast of Epiphany when the three wise men, the three kings or the magi, however you call them visited baby Jesus with their gifts and it was also the end of the winter festivities which had stated on All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. I’m not sure that many people do much to mark twelfth night, apart from taking down their decorations, but it wasn’t so long ago when it would have been part of what most households would mark, often baking a special cake. It used to be that a dried pea and a dried bean would be  cooked in the cake mix, and whoever had the slices containing them would be the king and the queen for the party.

Certainly, when the National Mark Calendar of Cooking was written in the 1930’s it was a known custom, but already beginning to fade, as Ambrose Heath and – or, Dorothy Cottington Taylor wrote in the introduction to their Twelfth Night Cake recipe:

It is a pity to let old customs die out entirely, and a ‘Twelfth Night Party’, at which the cake takes pride of place, is sure to be popular. This cake was originally a highly spiced one and rather rich; but if the party is for children, a simpler mixture could be substituted.
Actually, the outside is by far the most important. The principal decoration should be twelve candles and stars. A pale-coloured icing (suggestive of a clear sky) assists in carrying out the scheme. Each persons ingenuity and resourcefulness can be exercised in evolving a really attractive cake worthy of ‘The Fast of the Star’.

Of course, Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ was written especially to be part of a Twelfth Night entertainment; and in keeping with some of the old traditions, many things are reversed, such as a woman, Viola dressing up as a man, and  Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman. These same sort of things can be seen in pantomimes today. These ideas date right back to the Romans and beyond, typical of midwinter celebrations.

Here is the National Mark cake recipe:

  • 8 oz flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 8 oz sugar
  • 8 oz butter
  •  6 oz currants
  • 8 oz sultanas
  • 2 oz candied peel
  • 2 oz glacé cherries
  • 1 level dessertspoonful of mixed spice
  • a little milk to mix
  1. cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy
  2. stir in the sieved flour and spice,  and beaten eggs alternately
  3. mix in the fruit, adding a little milk if necessary
  4. pour into a greased lined tin and bake at 350°F, 180°C gas mark 4, for about 2 hours (cover with greaseproof paper if it gets too dark on top
  5. When cool ice with pale blue icing and decorate with candles and stars

Here is a poem by Robert Herrick, born in 1591 and died in 1674 – lambs wool is a warming drink made from ale, milk, spices and sugar, by the way!:

 

Twelfth Night,  Or King And Queen

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake ;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool :
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too ;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen wassailing :
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

by Robert Herrick

I think on thee, dear friend,

I came back to this sonnet by Shakespeare a couple of days ago. It seems suitable for an autumn day, slightly melancholy, looking back over ‘things past’. It still strikes me as incredible that something written so many hundred years ago can still speak to us so vividly and movingly.

I read a critique of it commenting on the legalistic language used, sessions, summon up, account, all losses are restored, as if there is a metaphorical weighing up the balance of two sides in some sort of ‘grievance‘; it’s as if there has been a falling out over not money but love,  waste, expense, cancelled,  paid before, tell o’er (tell as in counting or adding up).

However, there is a sort of happy ending, a sort of melancholic happy ending ‘…all losses are restor’d and sorrows end’

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

William Shakespeare