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Featured Poem: Outlook by Archibald Lampman

Written by Rachael Norris, 30th March 2020

This week in our special series of poems to help us through the testing times ahead, Natalie, Learning and Quality Leader, shares Outlook by Archibald Lampman, with some thoughts below.

I have now spent two weeks at home, and while this lockdown has paused many of the things I love the most - seeing friends and family, exploring new places in Liverpool and sometimes making it to Parkrun on a Saturday morning - one thing it has given me is more time to read. Another thing I love.
The past few weeks, however, I have found it hard to find the 'right' thing for this particular moment in time. Do I want to read something light that takes my mind off what's going on in the world? Or do I want to read something that instead mirrors the situation or the feelings that I have in relation to it? Do I want to work hard? Or do I need an easy read, which I can easily disappear into?
I think I have come to the conclusion that perhaps a little bit of everything is needed to get through these testing times. The Reader's anthology Poems to Take Home is good for that, and this morning it was Archibald Lampman's 'Outlook' I needed. It gave me comfort. I hope it will for you too:

Not to be conquered by these headlong days,

But to stand free: to keep the mind at brood

On life's deep meaning, nature's altitude

Of loveliness, and time's mysterious ways;

At every thought and deed to clear the haze

Out of our eyes, considering only this,

What man, what life, what love, what beauty is,

This is to live, and win the final praise.

Though strife, ill fortune, and harsh human need

Beat down the soul, at moments blind and dumb

With agony; yet, patience—there shall come

Many great voices from life's outer sea,

Hours of strange triumph, and, when few men heed,

Murmurs and glimpses of eternity.

Archibald Lampman

As a non-native speaker of English I am immediately drawn to the word 'headlong'. I have never heard it before, but it feels very poignant. There are indeed days which are just too much for our heads to take in. What the 'too much' is will vary from person to person, but for me, at the minute, 'headlong days' have to do with new work patterns and priorities, new ways of being at home and communicating with colleagues, friends and family. It's weird because I think of social isolation as a pause but yet everything in it is, in fact, new. It's not like a normal pause. There are lots of things to learn and get used to even as we're sat inside the homes we know so well. How do we do that?
It says here, 'But to stand free: to keep the mind at brood/On life's deep meaning, nature's altitude/Of loveliness, and time's mysterious ways'. To be able to stand free, to not be conquered, requires that we do something with our thinking, it seems. It feels like a big, almost overwhelming task, to focus on 'life's deep meaning' in order to be able to continue as a human being in the middle of struggle.
However, the lines that follow, 'considering only this / What man, what life, what love, what beauty is' feels clearer somehow. Yes, still big questions, but those are the only ones we need to consider - we can give ourselves a break from the smaller concerns. It translates to me as as one question really: What matters right now? Yes, I am worried and confused by this new situation and I can easily get bogged down into the details of it.
But right now, I know that beauty for me is in the spring that, despite all, is coming (I'm woken up by eager birds every morning). Love is in the phone calls and video calls I'm having with people even as we can't physically meet up. And to me, life is still very much about being here, present, connecting to others or to the outer world in whatever way possible. Although it's understandable to draw back from existential questions like these in a time of crisis, perhaps they might in fact prove helpful, even grounding, in terms of getting back to the core of what really matters to us?
In the last verse, I find some sort of relief in the fact that pain is mentioned too. We can't control everything and more importantly, we can't always choose a 'positive mindset'. But the heart of the stanza is to me 'yet, patience' and from that follows 'many great voices from life's outer sea' and 'murmurs and glimpses of eternity'. It suggests to me that the only thing we can do sometimes is to wait for something outside of us to help us.
Again, that feels very true to how my days feel at present. Sometimes I wake up and I have the energy to decide to look at what might be gained from it, other days I just miss my family and I wish things were different. It comes in swings and roundabouts. What helps me when I am conquered on those 'headlong days' is when someone else reaches out to me, like the great voices from life's outer sea.
If you find that helpful too and you wish to connect with new people or with reading, don't hesitate to get in touch via our hotline 0151 729 2250. Here, we can let you know about what Shared Reading will look like in the next couple of months and how to be part of it remotely.
I hope spring is looking good from your window and I wish you a blissful Monday.
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