Christmas in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Music, Part IV by Henry Van Dyke

O lead me by the hand,
And let my heart have rest,
And bring me back to childhood land,
To find again the long-lost band
Of playmates blithe and blest.

Some quaint, old-fashioned air,
That all the children knew,
Shall run before us everywhere,
Like a little maid with flying hair,
To guide the merry crew.

Along the garden ways
We chase the light-foot tune,
And in and out the flowery maze,
With eager haste and fond delays,
In pleasant paths of June.

For us the fields are new,
For us the woods are rife
With fairy secrets, deep and true,
And heaven is but a tent of blue
Above the game of life.

The world is far away:
The fever and the fret,
And all that makes the heart grow gray,
Is out of sight and far away,
Dear Music, while I hear thee play
That olden, golden roundelay,
“Remember and forget!”

Favorite Poets: John Masefield

Masefield, a British poet who was named Poet Laureate of Great Britain in 1930, wrote poetry as well as adult novels, children’s fantasy stories, dramas, and memoir. “Masefield took his appointment (as Poet Laureate) seriously and produced a large quantity of verse. Poems composed in his official capacity were sent to The Times. Masefield’s modesty was shown by inclusion of a stamped envelope with each submission so that his composition could be returned if it were found unacceptable for publication.” (Wikipedia)

Isn’t that a lovely story, and the mark of a true gentleman? The following poem is one of Masefield’s most famous, called “Sea Fever”.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

~

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Fresh-Picked Poetry by Michelle Schaub

Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market by Michelle Schaub.

While you sleep
snuggled tight
farmers toil
by silver light.
Harvest, sort,
wash, and load.
Hop in trucks.
Hit the road.

With alliterative phrases like “tasty transformations”, “pyramids of peppers”, “a whisper of spice”, and “market melody”, poet Michelle Schaub transforms the local farmer’s market into a poetry market. There are other lovely images in these poems, too. The beekeeper brings “jars of liquid-gold alchemy” to the market. Green Zebra Tomato and Dinosaur Kale “live in peace upon a salad plate.” And a couple of blueberry thieves are caught “blue-handed.”

The illustrations by Amy Huntington are bright, colorful, and multi-cultural. And on the final page of this poetry collection there’s a list of “fresh-picked reasons to spend a day at the (farmers’) market.”

Home cupboards brim with bounty
while families dream away,
imagining the wonders
to come
next market day.

Reading these poems has me contemplating a trip to the farmers’ market —very soon.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Kim La Fave.

Malini is a little girl in a farming community in Sri Lanka. She wakes up in the morning, excited by her opportunity to learn to plant rice seedlings for the first time. But then, on her way to the fields, Malini has the chance to help the community in a different way, as the monsoon rains come and she responds to a near-disaster with pluck and bravery.

This story is just exciting and even scary enough to enthrall young readers and listeners, even as they learn to admire Malini’s courage and resourcefulness. The text itself, written in free verse, is filled with images and onamatapoeia and word pictures that will help readers to imagine what life must be like in a small farming community in Asia. And the illustrations are colorful and exciting, too, complementing the story and bringing out details that might be lost in the rush of the verse.

I’m excited to add this book to my library since my patrons are always looking for excellent picture books that will introduce their children to life in other places in the world. When the Rain Comes may become a favorite go-to title for those who are studying India and Sri Lanka.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott.

What sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible people! This book is about the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, Mary’s step-sister, Claire, Lord Byron, and for some reason, Byron’s erstwhile doctor, John Polidori. It’s mostly about the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron and the Shelley ménage and Doctor Polidori were all in Geneva, hanging out and being sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible. Oh, and they also decided to enliven a rainy day by competing to see who could write the best horror story. Mary “won” because she was the only one who finished and published her story, Frankenstein. Polidori wrote something called The Vampyre, too, but it may or may not have been mostly plagiarized from Lord Byron

Percy and Mary were on the run from Mary’s family, unmarried and plagued by debt. They had been together for two years by the summer of 1816 and had a son, William, but they believed in “free love” and therefore were not married. There were persistent rumors that Claire, who ran away with them when they first eloped, was also Percy Shelley’s lover. However, according to this book, Claire only had eyes for Lord Byron, and she was probably already pregnant with Byron’s child when the Byron contingent and the Shelley group met up in Geneva in May of 1816. If it all sounds complicated and rather tawdry, it was.

The Poet and the Vampyre is chronologically scattered, maybe because the Shelleys and Lord Byron and Claire and Polidori led such nomadic and convoluted lives. Lord Byron was also “on the run” in 1816, escaping from his estranged wife and tattered reputation in England. He took up with Claire mostly because she kept throwing her self at him, and he had no power or reason or moral principles to make him resist. Then, there’s a baby, and Byron wants to ignore it, ignore Claire and forget the spring and summer interlude with her ever happened. The narrative keeps going back and forth between Byron’s former life in England and his rise to fame, the Shelleys and Claire and their former lives in England before the great elopement, John Polidori’s history and current situation as Byron’s personal doctor, all of the mess they made of their lives after the summer in Geneva, and various and sundry other anecdotes and historical notes that the author decides to throw in here and there.

The book could have been much better organized, and I never did understand why Polidori was even a focus of the story. Maybe the author felt sorry for him because at the time Mr. Polidori felt ignored and overlooked by the great poets, Byron and Shelley. Since the Romantic poets were so very confessional and personal in their poetry, it makes since to read about their actual lives. Unfortunately, reading about the casual cruelty and lack of any moral standard that Shelley and especially Byron exhibited in their personal lives makes me not want to read their poetry at all. Ever.

I would suggest reading the poetry on its own merits and knowing as little about the poets as possible. That method of literary engagement might mean that you interpret some of the poems of Byron and Shelley in a way that they weren’t meant, but at least you would skip the scandal and gossip and general nastiness. I did find out that Mr. Polidori was the uncle of the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. Interesting, but again I’m not sure it’s terribly significant that the Rossettis had an uncle who was Lord Byron’s personal doctor for a few months.

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan wrote the wonderful, Newbery award winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Sarah is her most successful and most read novel. The books for children that she has written since Sarah, aside from the sequels to that novel, have mostly been innovative and different and even quirky, but just not as accessible and not as captivating as Sarah.

The Poet’s Dog follows in this same vein, interesting but not exactly an instant classic or even a best seller. The story is about a talking dog, an Irish wolfhound, who rescues two children who are stranded in a snowstorm. I don’t quite understand why the children decide to leave the car where their mother left them when she went to look for help. They say, “People came and knocked on the car windows, telling us the car was going to be towed off the road before it got covered with snow.” So the children left the car in a blizzard? Why would people knock on the car windows and then leave two children there in the snow? Why would the children not wait for the tow truck to help them get to somewhere safe? Or wait for their mother to come back? Nicholas is twelve years old, old enough to know better than to go off with his little sister into a blizzard.

That bit of illogic aside, the dog is sweet. He used to belong to a poet named Sylvan who lived in a cabin in the woods, low technology and high on the poetic, free spirit, Wendell Berry kind of a life. But Sylvan is gone, and the dog, Teddy, lives alone in the cabin until he finds the two children. Teddy can talk, but the only people who can hear him are poets and children. Nice touch.

I also liked the references to picture books and the recognition that many good picture book texts are also poems. Specifically, Sylvan says that Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall is one of his favorite poems. Other poetic picture books: Summer Is . . . by Charlotte Zolotow (almost anything by Charlotte Zolotow), Wake Up, City by Alvin Tresselt, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, Umbrella by Taro Yashima, A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans. Actually, most of the picture books that are more about the language, and the rhythm of reading the book aloud, and the word pictures than they are about plot and characters are really little illustrated poems. That’s not an original thought with me or with Ms. MacLachlan, but it was a nice thought to be reminded of.

In the end, though, this book had several “nice touches” but not much substance. I can’t see it being popular with dog lovers, in spite of Teddy’s cuteness, or beginning readers, in spite of the large, sparse text and abbreviated length (88 pages), or poetry fans, in spite of the poetry connection. Maybe eight to ten year old poetry fans who like short books with talking animals? How many of those are out there?

100 Poems by George Herbert

Such a lovely volume of poems by one of my favorite poets! George Herbert lived and wrote in the early seventeenth century, and he is “widely regarded as the greatest devotional poet in the English language.” In fact, for modern Christian readers, reading a poem a day from this book of one hundred of Herbert’s best and most famous poems would be a significant and useful devotional practice. And for non-religious poets and poetry fans, the study of of Herbert’s poetry is well worth the time and effort. Helen Wilcox, the university professor who wrote the introduction to this collection says, “Reading and re-reading Herbert’s poems is a process of self-discovery.”

This selection of Herbert’s poetry, published by Cambridge University Press, includes many of my favorites, such as:
Love III
Love Bade Me Welcome
The Pulley
Christmas
The Dawning
The Sonne
A Wreath
Easter Wings

Others of the 100 poems were new to me. I particularly liked Herbert’s version of the 23rd psalm which begins, “The God of love my shepherd is/And he that doth me feed:/While he is mine and I am his,/What can I want or need?”

Herbert is one of the so-called “metaphysical poets”, along with John Donne and Henry Vaughan. I find all three of these Christian metaphysical poets both bracing and comforting. C.S. Lewis named the poetry of George Herbert as one of the ten works that most influenced his philosophy of life. Richard Baxter, the famous Puritan thinker, said, “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books.” If you’re ready for some heart-work and/or heaven-work, I recommend the poetry of George Herbert. Prescription for a weary soul: Read aloud one poem each morning and meditate on it. Repeat each evening before bed.

Old Books by Margaret Widdemer

April is Poetry Month. Let’s celebrate by talking about poems.

Margaret Widdemer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for her poetry collection The Old Road to Paradise. She shared her prize with Carl Sandburg for Cornhuskers. Nowadays, Sandburg is known and remembered; Widdemer is forgotten. Ms. Widdemer also wrote novels, and her memoir Golden Friends I Had recounts her friendships with eminent authors such as Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

OLD BOOKS by Margaret Widdemer

The people up and down the world that talk and laugh and cry,
They’re pleasant when you’re young and gay, and life is all to try,
But when your heart is tired and dumb, your soul has need of ease,
There’s none like the quiet folk who wait in libraries–
The counselors who never change, the friends who never go,
The old books, the dear books that understand and know!

‘Why, this thing was over, child, and that deed was done,’
They say, ‘When Cleopatra died, two thousand years agone,
And this tale was spun for men and that jest was told
When Sappho was a singing-lass and Greece was very old,
And this thought you hide so close was sung along the wind
The day that young Orlando came a-courting Rosalind!’

The foolish thing that hurt you so your lips could never tell,
Your sister out of Babylon she knows its secret well,
The merriment you could not share with any on the earth
Your brother from King Francis’ court he leans to share your mirth,
For all the ways your feet must fare, the roads your heart must go,
The old books, the dear books, they understand and know!

You read your lover’s hid heart plain beneath some dead lad’s lace,
And in a glass from some Greek tomb you see your own wet face,
For they have stripped from out their souls the thing they could not speak
And strung it to a written song that you might come to seek,
And they have lifted out their hearts when they were beating new
And pinned them on a printed page and given them to you.

The people close behind you, all their hearts are dumb and young,
The kindest word they try to say it stumbles on the tongue,

Their hearts are only questing hearts, and though they strive and try,
Their softest touch may hurt you sore, their best word make you cry.
But still through all the years that come and all the dreams that go
The old books, the dear books, they understand and know!

C.S. Lewis said, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”

Perhaps the older we get, the more the “old books” recommend themselves to our attention. Of course, the oldest Book of all, the Christian scriptures, Old and New Testaments, is to be trusted most. Ms. Widdemer doesn’t mention the Bible in her poem, but I think even non-Christians could go to the Scriptures and find the kind of comfort and recognition of kindredness that the poem recognizes and enjoins.

What other old books “understand and know” you in a way that new books or your own friends and contemporaries cannot?

Poetry Friday: For Our Children

For Our Children by Amy Carmichael

Father, hear us, we are praying,
Hear the words our hearts are saying;
We are praying for our children.

Keep them from the powers of evil,
From the secret, hidden peril;
Father, hear us for our children.

From the whirlpool that would suck them,
From the treacherous quicksand, pluck them;
Father, hear us for our children.

From the worldling’s hollow gladness,
From the sting of faithless sadness,
Father, Father, keep our children.

Through life’s troubled waters steer them;
Through life’s bitter battle cheer them;
Father, Father, be Thou near them.

Read the language of our longing,
Read the wordless pleadings thronging,
Holy Father, for our children.

And wherever they may bide,
Lead them home at eventide.