Good poetry holds its truth and relevance throughout the ages. It may retail the facts and thinking of its own era, but part of it will always express what is eternally true and recognizable. In a jotting in one of his notebooks Thomas Hardy put the matter simply: “A poet should express the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own.” John Livingston Lowes in his book Convention and Revolt in Poetry, published in 1919, wrote the following:

“The old themes are perennial. Love is as dazzling a miracle to every lover who loves today as if unnumbered millions hadn’t loved since time began. Death isn’t trite to you and me because it’s been the common lot since life first was; nor have the moon and stars grown old because uncounted centuries ago, besides the rivers of Babylon and Egypt, or among the hills and pasturelands of Israel, or  in the wide stillness of Arabia, men saw them and brooded, and wondered, and dreamed.  The oldest things in the world are the things that also have been new as many times as human beings have been born.”

There is something infinitely valuable, but as infinitely hard to express exactly, in what good poetry provides in mankind’s long voyage from and to who knows where. Rilke tells a story in which it is the sea and the distance that becomes the image of the poet’s reality. A rowing-boat sets out on a difficult passage. The oarsmen labour in exact rhythm. There is no sign yet of the destination. Suddenly a man, seemingly idle, breaks out into a song. And if the labour of the oarsmen meaninglessly defeats the real resistance of the real waves it is the idle singer who magically conquers the despair of apparent aimlessness. While the people next to him try to come to grips with the element that is next to them, his voice seems to bind the boat to the farthest distance so that the farthest distance draws the boat towards itself. ‘I don’t know why and how’, is Rilke’s conclusion, ‘but suddenly I understood the situation of the poet, his place and function in this age.’

A very long time ago I was reminded of these things when David Ford, one of the old school full of integrity and concern for things that really matter in life, was talking to me of many things – Adrian Thompson and his monumental work in Guyana, A.J Seymour, our greatest man of letters, old books like Henry Taylor’s The Statesman which set out 180 years ago the principles of good government, Roy Heath’s novels, and many other subjects. Before we parted he handed me a poem which I had never seen before. It is an extract from a long work written by an Egyptian who lived about 4,000 years ago.

The Man Who Was Tired Of Life

                                To whom can I speak today?

                                Gentleness has perished

                                And the violent man has come down on

                                everyone.

 

                                To whom can I speak today?

                                I am heavy-laden with trouble

                                Through lack of an intimate friend.

 

 

                                To whom can I speak today?

                                The wrong which roams the earth,

                                There is no end of it.

                                Death is in my sight today

                                As when a man desires to see home

                                When he has spent many years in

                                captivity.

We don’t know the man or the infinitely remote culture, so many centuries have passed, so many empires come in glory and gone to dust, but tell me if it is not the same tide of affairs washing around us which washed around him all those millennia ago, tell me if you cannot recognize still the same human heart that beats in you and me.

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