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Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Favourite Poem And How I Found It

"Oh, these are the voices of the past, links of a broken chain, wings that can bear me back to times which cannot come again, yet God forbid that I should lose the echoes that remain."

Back at the end of October and the beginning of November, 1975, as part of my A level biology course, I spent a week at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre near East Bergholt in Suffolk.

Flatford Mill was once the family home of the British painter John Constable, and the surrounding area provided subjects for many of his landscape paintings.

While there, I slept in Willie Lott's Cottage, which features prominently in what is probably Constable's most famous painting: 'The Haywain' (It's on the left of the picture there, look.)

During my stay there, I slept in a ground floor bedroom, but outside in the hallway, there was an open area under the stairs, where we discovered someone had once carved the verse above, into the wood of the staircase.

We could tell by the state of the carved wood that it had been there for a long time, but it was still just readable, so we all found it fascinating, and having never heard it before I remembered it, and in later years tried to find out where it originated from.

As it turned out, the staircase predated the carving by about three hundred years. The cottage (and presumably, the staircase inside it,) had been around since the 16th century, but the verse was from a poem written by the 19th century poet Adelaide Anne Proctor (1825-1864).

Proctor was apparently Queen Victoria's favourite poet as well as being a great friend of Charles Dickens. As well as writing poetry, she also worked with unemployed women and the homeless, and died of tuberculosis aged 38.

I discovered that the verse carved under the stairs in the cottage was the last verse of the poem that follows. It's main theme is one of nostalgia, and of past memories and reflection on what once was.

As I've become older, the theme has become more relevent to me and it has become my favourite poem.
Here it is:

"VOICES OF THE PAST" by Adelaide Anne Proctor

You wonder that my tears should flow in listening to that simple strain,
That those unskilful sounds should fill my soul with joy and pain,
How can you tell what thoughts it stirs within my heart again?

You wonder why that common phrase, so all unmeaning to your ear,
Should stay me in my merriest mood and thrill my soul to hear,
How can you tell what ancient charm has made me hold it dear?

You marvel that I turn away from all those flowers so fair and bright,
And gaze at this poor herb 'till tears arise and dim my sight,
You cannot tell how every leaf breathes of a past delight.

You smile to see me turn and speak with one whose converse you despise,
You do not see the dreams of old that with his voice arise,
How can you tell what links have made him sacred to my eyes?

Oh, these are the voices of the past, links of a broken chain,
Wings that can bear me back to times which cannot come again,
Yet God forbid that I should lose the echoes that remain.

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  1. This is my favourite poem too! I was in an antique store one day and found a collection of poems by Adelaide Anne Proctor, so I began to read them. I LOVED that book, but they wanted a LOT of money for it. Instead, I looked her up later online and the rest is history.

  2. I think it must have been carved between 1979 & 1989 - I'd had a 10-year break from going to Flatford & it must have been cut in the meantime.
    Perhaps it refers to the way the stairs creak - I went there on my first course in 1962 and had the room immediately to the right at the top of the stairs, facing the Mill. One the first morning (Ascension Day) girls from a St Albans convent school had to go to E Bergholt for early Mass (before Vatican II there was no way round it - they'd been refused a dispensation). The creaking woke me up and even now when I hear it, I think of them.

    1. You're a little bit out with 1979. It was certainly there when I stayed there in the last quarter of 1975, and you could tell that it wasn't newly carved even then.
      It doesn't refer to anything about the stairs. It's a quote from a Adelaide Proctor poem. It refers to memories, nostalgia and how we feel about them.