The vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere passed this morning at 10.29 GMT, heralding the start of spring – a time when naturally our thoughts turn to death and decay. Which is no doubt why I remembered this poem I came across some time ago but for some reason haven’t posted yet. It’s quite astonishing how many websites attribute this verse to the Elizabethan courtier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was indeed an accomplished poet, but the use of language is very clearly not of that period. In fact this was written by Professor Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922). What he says in this poem about his own untidiness is I’m afraid very true also of me, but the semi-joking tone with which he opens gives way to something far more profound, and I think the last two lines are particularly powerful.
When I am safely laid away,
Out of work and out of play,
Sheltered by the kindly ground
From the world of sight and sound,
One or two of those I leave
Will remember me and grieve,
Thinking how I made them gay
By the things I used to say;
— But the crown of their distress
Will be my untidiness.
What a nuisance then will be
All that shall remain of me!
Shelves of books I never read,
Piles of bills, undocketed,
Shaving-brushes, razors, strops,
Bottles that have lost their tops,
Boxes full of odds and ends,
Letters from departed friends,
Faded ties and broken braces
Tucked away in secret places,
Baggy trousers, ragged coats,
Stacks of ancient lecture-notes,
And that ghostliest of shows,
Boots and shoes in horrid rows.
Though they are of cheerful mind,
My lovers, whom I leave behind,
When they find these in my stead,
Will be sorry I am dead.
They will grieve; but you, my dear,
Who have never tasted fear,
Brave companion of my youth,
Free as air and true as truth,
Do not let these weary things
Rob you of your junketings.
Burn the papers; sell the books;
Clear out all the pestered nooks;
Make a mighty funeral pyre
For the corpse of old desire,
Till there shall remain of it
Naught but ashes in a pit:
And when you have done away
All that is of yesterday,
If you feel a thrill of pain,
Master it, and start again.
This, at least, you have never done
Since you first beheld the sun:
If you came upon your own
Blind to light and deaf to tone,
Basking in the great release
Of unconsciousness and peace,
You would never, while you live,
Shatter what you cannot give;
— Faithful to the watch you keep,
You would never break their sleep.
Clouds will sail and winds will blow
As they did an age ago
O’er us who lived in little towns
Underneath the Berkshire downs.
When at heart you shall be sad,
Pondering the joys we had,
Listen and keep very still.
If the lowing from the hill
Or the tolling of a bell
Do not serve to break the spell,
Listen; you may be allowed
To hear my laughter from a cloud.
Take the good that life can give
For the time you have to live.
Friends of yours and friends of mine
Surely will not let you pine.
Sons and daughters will not spare
More than friendly love and care.
If the Fates are kind to you,
Some will stay to see you through;
And the time will not be long
Till the silence ends the song.
Sleep is God’s own gift; and man,
Snatching all the joys he can,
Would not dare to give his voice
To reverse his Maker’s choice.
Brief delight, eternal quiet,
How change these for endless riot
Broken by a single rest?
Well you know that sleep is best.
We that have been heart to heart
Fall asleep, and drift apart.
Will that overwhelming tide
Reunite us, or divide?
Whence we come and whither go
None can tell us, but I know
Passion’s self is often marred
By a kind of self-regard,
And the torture of the cry
“You are you, and I am I.”
While we live, the waking sense
Feeds upon our difference,
In our passion and our pride
Not united, but allied.
We are severed by the sun,
And by darkness are made one.