Edmund Waller – a memory

It’s 1963 or 1964 in South Africa. I’m fourteen or fifteen. I’m standing in my father’s narrow, shabby and dusty study – feeling an acute sense of privilege and awe. This is his retreat, where he works away from the noise of family life and where he keeps his treasures – relics of his life in England, our childish drawings, our milk teeth. There are two crude, tight-packed bookshelves – one made of metal – and his greening academic gown with its moulting rabbit skin hood hangs on the door. There’s a pile of yellowing newspapers several feet deep in a corner because he writes leading articles for our provincial newspaper several times a week. The window looks down on a precipitous front garden, then out over the park – once the municipal playing fields – across the road. The sun beats, the temperature is over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, a Christmas beetle is shrieking in the willow. I’m far away from all that, though. I’m holding a little blue MacMillan hardback, HJ Massingham’s A Treasury of Seventeenth Century English Verse.  My father has shown me ‘To Phoebus’, a bewilderingly allusive poem ascribed to my namesake Edmund Prestwich (‘Nothing is known of this very rare poet’, says Massingham) but I’m more interested in Edmund Waller, specifically in the second stanza of a poem Massingham calls ‘Old Age’. I find this so wildly thrilling that I repeat it aloud, and my father smiles quietly.

How much of that is a conflation of different memories I can’t say, nor even whether my father first showed me the Massingham in his study or our living room. I can remember that the book seemed to me like an almost holy object – it was very dear to him – and also how excited I was by the beginning of that stanza. I was bookish and dreamy, admittedly, but didn’t read much poetry outside what we did at school, some Border ballads and the poems and songs in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so I think the way that stanza exploded in my mind is a real testimony to the direct workings of a certain kind of poetic power. Here it is as Massingham printed it:


The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time hath made:
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.


What got me in those first two lines was the swiftness and absoluteness with which the image of the cottage appears, with its vivid chiaroscuro contrast of darkness and light, and the power of the meter – those runs of heavily stressed syllables with the spondees at the start of the line (‘SOUL’S  DARK COTtage’, ‘LETS IN NEW LIGHT’. Of course I had no idea of analysing metre, I could only feel it. And I’m not sure now whether I grasped the doubleness of the cottage image. I’m sure I saw the cottage from outside as a shadowy shape in the darkness with light streaming out of cracks and windows. I don’t know whether I saw it at all from inside, as a dark claustrophobic enclosure letting in little glimmers of a light by which it was surrounded. I now realise that that must actually be the main point of the metaphor. I think the other image has its own validity, though – it expresses the triumphant sense that compared to a young man the old man has more of the light inside him, kindled by his greater attention to the light outside. But what thinking about that early experience makes me feel is how much my response to poetry has always been essentially a response to rhythm and cadence.

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