Sunday, April 25, 2010

A poetic double-whammy for homesick Englishmen

Since a proper spring seems to have gone missing in Beijing this year - summer just around the corner, probably about to burst suddenly upon us after a succession of dull days, wet days, chilly days, with no interval of mild weather and blossoms to ease us into the four-and-a-half months of fierce heat - I have been getting rather nostalgic for 'home', wondering what this best of seasons may be like in England right now. Of course, Browning anticipated me by 150-odd years.

His Home Thoughts (a poem I love chiefly for that phrase "the first fine careless rapture") presents an interesting comparison, I think, with that other great celebration of England and Englishness, Rupert Brooke's The Soldier.

Home thoughts, from abroad

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!

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

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