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Featured Poem: extract from Beachy Head by Charlotte Smith

Written by Rachael Norris, 15th February 2021

This week's Featured Poem is an extract from Beachy Head by Charlotte Smith and is brought to us by The Reader's Manchester Hub Leader, Kate Weston. The theme for our daily readings in February is 'Close to the Heart' and we hope the poetry, readings and recommendations we have chosen can help us stay connected over the coming weeks.

When we talk of love, we often speak of our partners, family and friends, yet for many of us, the places where we were born or grew up, even the new landscapes we discover on our journey through life, are as close to the heart and intrinsic to our sense of self as the people we connect with along the way.

I first stumbled upon ‘Beachy Head’ while flicking through an anthology of poetry written by English women and was immediately struck by this strength of feeling for a place, particularly in the lines:

Ah! hills so early loved!

In fancy still I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold

Those widely spreading views, mocking alike

The poet and the painter’s utmost art

It is fast approaching a year since I last visited my home county of West Yorkshire and there have been many moments when I have also, ‘in fancy still’, imagined breathing the ‘pure keen air’ and beholding ‘those widely spreading views’ of my homelands. Looking at photographs and paintings is lovely, but can they really compare to the experience of having been there as a thinking and feeling being, with our senses alive to the sights, sounds and smells around us?

The first part of the poem also makes me wonder how much of this person’s love of this place is rooted in a yearning for the past. Was it the place itself that made them happy or the ‘light spirit’ of childhood that they associate with the place? The mention of ‘evil unforeseen’ and being ‘condemned’ certainly seems to create a sense of unease that leads me to question what might have happened in their life to say that they were only ‘once...happy, when while yet a child’.

There are so many wonderful natural images in the poem that remind us of the peaceful beauty of the natural world – from the ‘hedge rows, bordering unfrequented lanes bowered with wild roses’ to the ‘anemones With rays like golden studs on ivory laid Most delicate; but touched with purple clouds, Fit crowns for April’s fair but changeful brow’, it is easy to see why the person in the poem might have become an ‘early worshipper at nature’s shrine.’ As someone who enjoys looking at flowers, plants and trees but often struggles to name them, I find myself puzzling over what a ‘freckled pagil’ might be and wondering whether the naming of things has any bearing on our love for them. Can we still love a thing if we do not know its name, or does the knowledge heighten the feeling somehow?

Whatever you take from the poem, I hope ‘Beachy Head’ allows you a moment of calm amidst the wonders of the English countryside.

 

extract from Beachy Head

 

...I once was happy, when while yet a child,

I learned to love these upland solitudes,

And, when elastic as the mountain air,

To my light spirit, care was yet unknown

And evil unforeseen:- Early it came,

And childhood scarcely passed, I was condemned,

A guiltless exile, silently to sigh,

While memory, with faithful pencil, drew

The contrast […]

An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine,

I loved her rudest scenes – warrens, and heaths,

And yellow commons, and birch-shaded hollows,

And hedge rows, bordering unfrequented lanes

Bowered with wild roses, and the clasping woodbine

Where purple tassels of the tangling vetch

With bittersweet, and bryony inweave,

And the dews fills the silver bindweed’s cups -

I loved to trace the brooks whose humid banks

Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;

And stroll among o’ershadowing woods of beech,

Lending in summer, from the heats of noon

A whispering shade; while haply there reclines

Some pensive lover of uncultured flowers,

Who, from the tumps with bright green mosses clad,

Plucks the wood sorrel, with its light thin leaves,

Heart-shaped, and triply folded; and its root

Creeping like beaded coral; or who there

Gathers, the copse’s pride, anemones

With rays like golden studs on ivory laid

Most delicate; but touched with purple clouds,

Fit crowns for April’s fair but changeful brow.

 

Ah! hills so early loved! in fancy still

I breathe your pure keen air; and still behold

Those widely spreading views, mocking alike

The poet and the painter’s utmost art.

The visionary, nursing dreams like these,

Is not indeed unhappy. Summer woods

Wave over him, and whisper as they wave […]

 

by Charlotte Smith

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