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Featured Poem: The Nightjar by Henry Newbolt

Written by Rachael Norris, 30th November 2020

Frances Macmillan, editor of The Reader Magazine, reads us this week's Featured Poem, The Nightjar by Henry Newbolt. This is the last of our 'Light in the Dark' daily readings for November, our December readings calendar can be downloaded here. 

I first read this poem earlier in the summer, when my son had found an injured field mouse in a heap of leaves and we’d brought it back – against all better instincts – to our house to try and nurse it back to health. The mouse barely stirred when we moved it into a box of straw to carry it home, one of its legs seemed awry, and I grimly warned my son of its slim chances of survival. But he’s six, so he didn’t really believe me – why would it not live, now we were taking care of it? – and he named it Timmy, and we Googled in search of instructions of what to do. Hot water bottle under the box, water, food, lucky we had the straw. As Henry Newbolt says, a creature that asks some care of us is not hard to love, and Timmy was so vulnerably tiny and beautifully made. And against the odds, he lived. The next problem was how to persuade my children he had to be set free again, but Timmy took care of that himself, leaping out of his box after a week’s rest and relaxation, and eventually being caught (inside a folded umbrella) and carried outside to the garden, where he disappeared, quick as a flash, behind some bricks.

Maybe its our luck with Timmy, but despite the sadness and loss in this poem, it doesn’t make me sad. It’s light in the dark, for me; full of love and tenderness, and perhaps its sentimental, but why not, the poet asks? It would be hard to underestimate the sentiments that are sparked by these chance encounters with a living thing, human or otherwise, that asks some care of us. The nightjar is quite a mysterious bird, belonging to half-light and darkness and associated with various myths and superstitions, and I love the sense of mystery in this poem, the idea that the sight of some loved thing travels down the optic nerve into untold depths. The description of his nightjar’s wings is evocative and beautiful, so accurate that it does not seem as if the memory is fading at all. But if it is fading, then that process is like everything else in this poem, a gentle one, with wonder in it.

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