Land of Lost Content?
January 23, 2016 4 Comments
As some of you know, I am fond of poetry. The older I get, the more I think it almost the only thing outside of my Bible that’s worth reading. Yesterday, whiling away time I should have been doing something else with, I told Neo that I was overcome with a sort of melancholy – we have a word for that sort of feeling in Welsh, we call it ‘hiraeth’, and there’s a good article here about it and the context in which we Welsh feel it. I was brought up in the English-speaking part of Wales by a German father, so my Welshness is one of geography and feeling rather than one of language. Those great, grey, wild skies, framing the mountains stirs something in my blood, some deep ancestral memory on my mother’s side, all the more poignant and powerful because I never knew her. That speaks to something the English poet, A.E. Houseman wrote in what is perhaps his most famous poem, A Shropshire Lad where he writes with melancholic longing:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
That captures it well. It has in it something of our primal deprivation of Eden, that sense we have of exile, mourning and weeping in a valley of tears which is not our real home – we have a feeling of dis-ease, of unease, of not belonging, of being out of place.
Much of our lives are spent in unconscious combat with that feeling, and sometimes, when we are not looking, it can break through our defences, and manifests itself in nostalgia for our childhood, or if that won’t give it to us, a lost golden age when things were better than they are now. For poets like Houseman or RS Thomas, these feelings were turned by the imagination into poetry which catches in distilled form a feeling which we find hard to describe, because there are moments when words will not convey what we have in our hearts. How can we speak of exile from Eden except with a catch in our throat?
One of my favourite poets, RS Thomas, a Welsh Anglican clergyman, wrote of this in his poetry, not least of the difficulty of the living in the present in Wales – and here’s a taste of his poetry – where he finishes by writing of ‘sick’ people’ worrying at the ‘carcase of an old song’. There’s a warning there of the sterile nature of too much nostalgia – we can inhabit a vanishing past, but it cannot nurture or feed us. We can only, as Thomas said, turn aside from these things and find life where it is truly to be found, which is where redemption is to be found – as in one man, Adam, all men fell, so in one man, Christ, will all rise again. Here’s a taste of that to finish with from Thomas: