Friday July 28, 2017

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My Ancestral Home

We came to a beautiful little farm. From photos
I’d seen I knew this was the place. The house
and barn were painted in the traditional Falu
red, trimmed with white. It was nearly mid-
summer, the trees and grass, lush green, when
we arrived the family was gathered at a table
on the lawn for coffee and fresh strawberries.
Introductions were made all around, Grandpa
Sven, Lars-Olaf and Marie, Eric and Gudren,
Cousin Inge and her two children… It made me
think of a Carl Larsson painting. But, of course,
it was all modern, the Swedes are very up-to-
date, Lars-Olaf was an engineer for Volvo, and
they all spoke perfect English, except for
Grandpa, and there was a great deal of laughter
over my attempts at Swedish. We stayed for a
long time laughing and talking. It was late in
the day, but the sun was still high. I felt a won-
derful kinship. It seemed to me that I had
known these people all my life, they even
looked like family back in the States. But as it
turned out, we had come to the wrong farm.
Lars-Olaf said, “I think I know your people, they
live about three miles from here. If you like I
could give them a call.” I said that no, it wasn’t
necessary, this was close enough.

“My Ancestral Home” by Louis Jenkins from European Shoes. © Will O’ the Wisp Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, and although they read some poetry, all of it was old. Then he won a contest, and the prize was Louis Untermeyer's anthology Modern American and British Poetry. He didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them — poems by W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. A generous neighbor, seeing how bright Ashbery was, paid to send him to a good academy for his last two years of high school, and he started writing poetry more seriously. He went on to Harvard, and he published his first book, Some Trees (1956), when he was 29. He has been publishing ever since. His books include Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Planisphere (2009).

He said: "I don't quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience."

It's the birthday of poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (books by this author), born in Stratford, near London (1844). He was the eldest of nine children. The whole family drew pictures, wrote stories, and put on plays together. When Hopkins wasn't drawing or painting, he liked to climb trees, and especially loved the feeling of walking barefoot in the grass.

Hopkins attended a fancy boarding school, where he was a star student — he won prizes for his poetry, and he was a talented painter. He went on to Oxford to study classics, but he had a religious conversion. His parents were High Church Anglicans, but the young Hopkins decided to become Catholic, inspired by John Henry Newman, whose book Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) was a best-seller while Hopkins was at Oxford.
Two years later, Hopkins decided to become a Jesuit priest and started his training. He burned all of his poems and announced that he was giving up poetry. He didn't write at all for seven years. In 1875, a German passenger ship called the SS Deutschland sank in a storm, and more than 75 passengers died, including five Franciscan nuns who were escaping harsh anti-Catholic laws. He wrote a long poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, in commemoration. Hopkins saw poetry as a way to express his faith, and started writing again. In 1877, the year he was ordained as a priest, he wrote most of his best-known poems, including "Spring," "The Windhover," "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame," and "God's Grandeur," which begins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil."

Although Hopkins had graduated at the top of his class from Oxford, in July of 1877, he failed his final theology exam with the Jesuits. He was still ordained, but it seriously limited any chance of his ever advancing in the priesthood. Eventually, he was sent to University College in Dublin as a professor of Greek and Latin. The college was underfunded — he described it as "a ruin and for purposes of study very nearly naked." He hated it there, became profoundly depressed, doubting his own religious ideas, even contemplating suicide. During his years in Ireland, he wrote what are called his "terrible sonnets" because he was in such a dark place.

Hopkins died in 1889 of typhoid fever, at the age of 44. During his lifetime, he had published only a handful of minor poems, scattered through random publications. His friend Robert Bridges, who was now the poet laureate of England, edited and published the first book of Hopkins' poems in 1918.

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