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Featured Poem: Life by Henry Van Dyke

Written by The Reader, 13th August 2012

The Featured Poem has been selected this week by Rachel Coleman, Get Into Reading Project Worker in Wigan, who has found that variety is the spice of 'Life' - especially when it comes to the perspectives that come out of a shared reading session.

Recently I read Van Dyke’s Life with a Get Into Reading group held in a Drug and Alcohol Recovery Centre. As soon as I had finished reading, S exclaimed that it was all about Peter Pan; keeping young at heart and always seeking new adventures, “No, needing adventure to carry on living because otherwise what are you doing? Life is supposed to be exciting.”

After a brief discussion of whether an exciting life can occur when you’re poor and living on a North West council estate; “Yeah, drink and drugs help but look where that got us!”, S then spoke about his own adventure; attending the Job Centre. “All my life it’s been about getting as much as you can off the Social but now I just want to get out there and do something. I did a bit of graft for my mate last week and I tell you what, it was the best couple of days of my life. Proper hard work it was but I was whistling and everything!” The scope of the poem seems quite large in magnitude yet we forget that we each have milestones to conquer, no matter how insignificant they seem to anyone else.

I was reminded in reading of the fearless Reader warriors who tamed the Three Peaks recently; “So let the way wind up the hill or down/O’er rough or smooth, the journey will be joy.” I somehow doubt the journey was joyous but I can imagine the celebratory drink at the end was! Is this then a piece written after hardship, or by one who has yet to fully experience it? Regarding these lines, B likened Mr Van Dyke to Teflon; “Nothing sticks to him! He just carries on bouncing around. It’d be great to be like that, just not thinking about consequences or what ifs but to just pick yourself up at the end of the day and be determined to make yourself happy again.” J, who had been quiet so far ventured “Easier said than done. If you’re able to do that then fair play to you but I think he’s in the minority.” It was here that Henry Van Dyke’s initially revered declaration was doubted. A similar situation had occurred previously in the same group where one member viewed Kipling’s If as being sanctimonious.

When discussing the lines “Not mourning for the things that disappear/In the dim past, nor holding back in fear/From what the future veils” the group were undecided whether this was as positive a trait as first seemed. It is oft repeated that one can only learn from mistakes, and that to make any important decision deserves much thought and reflection to assess the best possible outcome; to fly in the face of that and live in the moment can lead to disaster. This made one group member deem this way of thinking “selfish” as the impact upon others has been forgotten.

It was interesting to see an initially positive poem being dissected in this way. Some could view this as cynical but it provoked thoughts on what a positive lifestyle should be to lead to happiness. Unfortunately the consensus was that this was hard to attain and perhaps only possible for those relatively alone; an attractive prospect in itself for some. I’m more confused than when I began with this poem as to whether Henry Van Dyke has captured the ideal frame of mind or not, and so if anyone can shed any further light on it, myself and the Get Into Reading group will be more than grateful!


Let me but live my life from year to year,
With forward face and unreluctant soul;
Not hurrying to, nor turning from the goal;
Not mourning for the things that disappear
In the dim past, nor holding back in fear
From what the future veils; but with a whole
And happy heart, that pays its toll
To Youth and Age, and travels on with cheer.

So let the way wind up the hill or down,
O'er rough or smooth, the journey will be joy:
Still seeking what I sought when but a boy,
New friendship, high adventure, and a crown,
My heart will keep the courage of the quest,
And hope the road's last turn will be the best.

Henry Van Dyke


This poem can also be found in Poems To Take Home, an anthology of classic poems enjoyed and specially chosen by Get Into Reading group members, The Reader Organisation volunteers and staff. Visit our website for more information on how you can get your very own copy of this wonderful and essential poetry collection.

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