Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Young Lamb's Heart Among The Full-Grown Flocks

William Blake was fond of reminding anyone who would listen that in the Bible poets and prophets were but two ways of looking at the same role. Poets were prophets and prophets were poets. These days we tend to draw a firmer line between the two, but even now the lines will blur at times.

The Coleridge children had the unusual opportunity of growing up with many of the greatest poets of the time being their neighbors and friends. When Hartley Coleridge was six, William Wordsworth wrote the following poem for him, which every page of his memoir bears out as having been amazingly prophetic (or at least uncannily insightful).

I can't help but think that it was a somewhat unkind thing to do, to hang such a foreboding poem over a small child's future. And as a father, I think I would not have been the least bit grateful to Wordsworth had he written it about my children!

TO H. C.
Six Years Old

O THOU! whose fancies from afar are brought;
Who of thy words dost make a mock apparel,
And fittest to unutterable thought
The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol;
Thou fairy voyager! that dost float
In such clear water, that thy Boat
May rather seem
To brood on air than on an earthly stream;
Suspended in a stream as clear as sky,
Where earth and heaven do make one imagery;
O blessed Vision! happy Child!
Thou art so exquisitely wild,
I think of thee with many fears
For what may be thy lot in future years.
I thought of times when Pain might be thy guest,
Lord of thy house and hospitality;
And Grief, uneasy lover! never rest,
But when she sat within the touch of thee.
O too industrious folly
O vain and causeless melancholy
Nature will either end thee quite
Or, lengthening out thy season of delight,
Preserve for thee, by individual right,
A young lamb's heart among the full-grown flocks.
What hast thou to do with sorrow,
Or the injuries of to-morrow?
Thou art a Dew-drop, which the morn brings forth,
Ill fitted to sustain unkindly shocks,
Or to be trailed along the soiling earth;
A gem that glitters while it lives,
And no forewarning gives;
But, at the touch of wrong, without a strife
Slips in a moment out of life.

While the line "A young lamb's heart among the full-grown flocks" may sound inviting, especially to fans of Peter Pan, it foretells a failure of maturity in this growing child who "of his words dost make a mock apparel." I won't go line by line to match image to Hartley Coleridge's life, but it could almost be done. When the child was six William Wordsworth drew a rough and accurate outline of his coming life.

From the other end of his life Hartley Coleridge wrote the following sonnet. In his experience it was no joyful laughing matter to forever carry a "young lamb's heart" in his breast.

Long time a child, and still a child, when years
Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I,--
For yet I lived like one not born to die;
A thriftless prodigal of smiles and tears,
No hope I needed, and I knew no fears.
But sleep, though sweet, is only sleep, and waking,
I waked to sleep no more, at once o'ertaking
The vanguard of my age, with all arrears
Of duty on my back. Nor child, nor man,
Nor youth, nor sage, I find my head is grey,
For I have lost the race I never ran:
A rathe December blights my lagging May;
And still I am a child, tho' I be old,
Time is my debtor for my years untold.


1 comment:

Mary Rae said...

I'm very interested in all you say. Hartley certainly carried the painful burden of his father's fame and expectations. I think he wanted what any parent would want for their children--happiness and joy--But we all find out along the way that that is not something we can give to them ouselves. Here's an excerpt from S.T. Coleridge's "Frost At Midnight."

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspers├ęd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought !
My babe so beautiful ! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes ! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe ! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags : so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher ! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw ; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.