Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Full Fathom Five To The Soul's Ocean Cave"

Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) is best known for his historical and narrative poems: "Drake's Drum," "He Fell Among Thieves," "Vitai Lampada," and others.  But not all of his poems are of this type.  I owe my acquaintance with the following poem to Kingsley Amis, who included it in The Amis Anthology (1988).  In a note to the poem, Amis suggests that it "shows Newbolt trying to develop a new, contemplative manner" later in his life.

The poem is open to the charge of "sentimentality," I suppose.  But please stay with it.  About half-way through (when an echo of Shakespeare arrives), it takes a turn that (I believe, at least) makes it memorable.

                                The Nightjar

We loved our Nightjar, but she would not stay with us.
We had found her lying as dead, but soft and warm,
Under the apple tree beside the old thatched wall.
Two days we kept her in a basket by the fire,
Fed her, and thought she well might live -- till suddenly
In the very moment of most confiding hope
She raised herself all tense, quivered and drooped and died.
Tears sprang into my eyes -- why not? the heart of man
Soon sets itself to love a living companion,
The more so if by chance it asks some care of him.
And this one had the kind of loveliness that goes
Far deeper than the optic nerve -- full fathom five
To the soul's ocean cave, where Wonder and Reason
Tell their alternate dreams of how the world was made.
So wonderful she was -- her wings the wings of night
But powdered here and there with tiny golden clouds
And wave-line markings like sea-ripples on the sand.
O how I wish I might never forget that bird --
                     But even now, like all beauty of earth,
She is fading from me into the dusk of Time.

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