Book Notes: Travel, Traveler, Travel of the Foot and the Heart – theday.com
June 13th is the birthday of William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He heard that “in the heart of his heart” when he stood on London’s “gray sidewalks” –
I’ll get up and now go and go to Innisfree
And built a little hut there, made of clay and wickerwork:
I’ll have nine rows of beans there, a beehive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the clearing noisy bees.
I’ll have some peace there cause peace is falling slowly
Fall from the morning veils to where the cricket sings;
Midnight everything is a shimmer and noon a purple glow,
And the evening full of linnets.
I’ll get up and go now, forever day and night
I hear lake water splashing on the bank with soft noises;
While I’m standing on the pavement or gray on the sidewalks
I hear it in the deep core of my heart. ‘
Lines so familiar and yet always fresh and new.
However, for many of us our gift is not to “stand up and go now,” so I have pondered the gifts of travelers who have shared their journeys with us through their scriptures. In fact, “A Time of Gifts” is the title of the first of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s many travel books, the record of his journey on foot through Europe in the mid-1930s as it prepared for war. Not only is he a gifted writer, he’s also the most attentive and sensitive travel companion and probably the most charming you will ever meet.
Another of my consistent favorites among pioneer researchers / travelers is Freya Stark. From an early life marked by tragedy and possible restrictions, she was the first Western woman to travel solo in the Middle and Far East. With their humanity and deep insights, your writings give us a wide window to this world, some of which has disappeared, most of which is present with us today. “Alexander’s Path” and “Dust in the Lion’s Paw” are just a few that come to mind.
But among all the classic travel books, Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” stands out as a surprising pleasure. It is a gripping account of a young and inquiring mind who ventures into the unknown with a notebook in hand – notes that would change our world forever.
This was one of the favorite books of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who may be unparalleled among modern travel poem writers. Her first poem in her first book is “Die Karte”, and for most of her life she has been a traveler, physically and mentally, always looking for “something, something, something” like her “water strider”. In her poem “Questions of Travel” she reflects what it means to be a tourist:
Is it right to watch strangers in a play / in this strangest theater?
And her answer is in the last line of the earlier poem ‘Arrival in Santos’ / ‘We are leaving Santos immediately; / we are going inland’. She was, in Herman Melville’s words, “a mind diver,” a traveler on a quest who asked questions about herself and us, the reader, not the tourist with “immodest demands for another world / and a better life, and although completely “. Understanding / of both finally and immediately ‘(again’ arrival in Santos’)
In her quest for “inland,” Elizabeth Bishop became immersed in the history and culture of Brazil, a quest that took her on a journey up the Amazon, a journey that years later spawned her seminal poem about Brazil. ‘Santarém’. “On this golden evening I really didn’t want to go any further; / more than anything else I wanted to stay for a while / in this confluence of two great rivers, the Tapajos, the Amazon,”… .. “I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place / Two rivers. Hadn’t two rivers flowed from the Garden of Eden? No, there were four / and they had parted. Here come only two / and together ‘……’ in this watery, dazzling dialectic. ‘
There is an echo of Yeats in the longing for a place, as well as an echo of Milton in language and tone. But as a bishop she ends her memory on a practical and humorous note, bringing herself and us back to the real world and awakening from the dream of Santarém, just as Eve awakened from her dream in the garden. “Then – my ship’s whistle sounded. I couldn’t stay. ‘
The poem ends with the description of a gift from an empty wasp’s nest, “small, fine, clean matt white / and hard as stucco” – which she admired “In the blue pharmacy”, which the pharmacist gave her. In the closing lines of the poem we too awaken from this memory of Santarém, his vivid palette of blues and yellows and vignettes of life that are so fully lived:
“Back on board, a fellow passenger, Mr. Swan, / Dutch, the retired boss of Philips Electric, / really a very nice old man / who wanted to see the Amazon before he died / asked,” What’s that ugly ?” Thing?
And so the journey goes on for the poet as for the reader and the world waits, but as in so many of her poems it ends with an open tone, a music that goes on.
In the reference to the Garden of Eden, another open note, another journey recalled by ‘Santarém’ includes the closing lines of Paradise Lost, not as an end but as a new beginning for Adam and Eve:
The world was before them where to choose
Her resting place and her providence her guide;
They walk hand in hand with wandering steps and slowly
They took their lonely path through Eden.
This is the narrator, but within the poem Eva utters the last heroic lines: “There is no delay in me; to go with you / is here to stay; to stay here without you / Is therefore reluctant to go; You to me / Are all things under heaven, all places you ‘(Paradise Lost, Book XII ll. 615-618).
If you go back to May you may remember that we left Ruth ‘in the midst of the strange grain’, ‘and it is her promise to her deprived and beloved mother-in-law Naomi that is repeated here by Eve’ … where to you go, i will go, where you stay, i will stay. And as with Eva, a new beginning for Ruth.
But not all journeys go forward, as we learn from 17th century poet Henry Vaughan, whose 400th anniversary like Andrew Marvell’s is this year. In his poetry “The Retreat” he expresses the longing to return to the first home of his soul.
Oh, how I long to travel back / And to re-enter this old path
Within a tight structure of tetrameter rhyming pairs, we are offered a moment of private grace that has been transformed into art. This so finely crafted poem reminds me of one of those details in a stained glass window that deserves our attention, or an exquisite carving hidden in the organ loft of a medieval cathedral, waiting for the curious traveler’s seeing eye:
Some men love to move forward;
But I would move by stepping backwards
And when this dust falls in the urn
In this state I came, I return.
But let’s get back to today and to Sebastian Junger’s new book “Freedom”, which tells of the journey of four companions who seek freedom and healing from the noise and trauma of the war they suffered.
Certainly a journey of the foot and the heart.
Belinda deKay is the recently retired former director of the Stonington Free Library.