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Featured Poem: To Mrs K, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris by Helen Maria Williams

Written by Rachael Norris, 23rd December 2019

This week's festive Featured Poem is To Mrs K, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris by Helen Maria Williams, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader Natalie Kaas-Pontoppidan.

Living abroad myself, I must admit that this poem really gets to me! It’s very special to receive a parcel from home and at times just as overwhelming as it is described here. You open the box, and then out of the blue those ‘crowding thoughts around me wake’. The word ‘wake’ seems important here – as if the thoughts are always there, but, until this very moment, slumbering somewhere in the background of our consciousness.

It then goes on to saying, ‘What marvels in a Christmas-cake!’. I love the idea that things – in this case food - can carry something more within ‘its odorous cells’, which awakes or ‘conjures up’ such a strong reaction in us. Recently, a group member told me that sometimes she’ll go to Boots and smell a certain perfume she used throughout her 20s. ‘It’s a way of transporting myself back’, she said. The same thing seems to be happening in this poem, although unexpectedly?

‘A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new
When memory knew no sorrows past
And hope believed in joys that last!’.

I wonder how the I is feeling in her/his present life? And how he or she is feeling about home at this point in life?

In relation to this, I can’t help but think that perhaps we need a few things – it being cakes or perfumes – as gateways to re-experience past times and places. It can almost feel like a way of cheating time and distance. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether things, like this plum cake, can carry and preserve the feeling of specific moments in time better than human beings can?

In the final bit of the poem, I find the lines ‘Of those who/while abroad they roam/retain each charm that gladdens home’ really poignant. What can sometimes make living abroad exhausting is exactly that conflict between roaming and retaining. How do you start from scratch somewhere new if you also have to spend energy on retaining what’s back home? Maybe that’s where the world’s Mrs Ks come in. Just like the person in this poem, I am forever grateful for family and friends back home who help me with the retaining bit. Especially around Christmas which is the time of year I miss home the most.

There’s lots more to explore in this poem, and I’d be interested in hearing how other readers feel as they are reading it. I will end here by wishing you a Merry Christmas. I hope it will be a ‘banquet for the heart’ with pockets of the old and the familiar as well as room for the new and unexpected.

To Mrs K, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! —
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life’s calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!
by Helen Maria Williams

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