Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"We Can Ask And Ask But We Can't Have Again What Once Seemed Ours For Ever": J. L Carr

In my previous post, I mentioned J. L. Carr in connection with A. E. Housman's cherry trees.  I also mentioned Carr's novel A Month in the Country (1980), which tells the story of Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran who has been hired to uncover a Medieval wall-painting in the loft of a small church in rural "Oxgodby."  To quote one of the novel's epigraphs (from Samuel Johnson):  it is "a small tale, generally of love."

Carr's novel has its own connections with Housman.  He provides its second epigraph:

Now for a breath I tarry,
   Nor yet disperse apart --
Take my hand quick and tell me,
   What have you in your heart?

The source is poem XXXII ("From far, from eve and morning") of A Shropshire Lad.  Housman returns at the close of the novel.  (The following passages do not include any "spoilers," should anyone be interested in reading the novel hereafter.)  Over the past month, Birkin has discovered that the wall-painting  is an undiscovered masterpiece by an unknown hand.  Other things have transpired as well.  He decides to take a final look at the painting.

"And, standing before the great spread of colour, I felt the old tingling excitement and a sureness that the time would come when some stranger would stand there too and understand.

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in that place, regretting his land of lost content.  And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart -- knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.  They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago.  And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby.  So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow."

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980; revised 1990).  The source of "regretting his land of lost content" is poem XL of A Shropshire Lad:

Into my heart an air that kills
   From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
   What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
   I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
   And cannot come again.

                Stanley Roy Badmin, "Summer, Stopham Bridge" (1962)


From My Easy Chair said...

Thank you for the connection between poem and novel. It is a beautiful novel. The film adaptation with Natasha Richardson, Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh is beautiful as well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for the comment, From My Easy Chair. And thank you for mentioning the movie -- I agree that it is a lovely film, and faithful to the feeling of the novel.

Anonymous said...

The fact that Simon Gray wrote the screenplay for 'A Month in the Country' gives me an excuse to say how wonderful Gray's 'Smoking Diaries' are – a sort of Larkin without the bicycle clips.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for the information about Simon Gray -- I am ashamed to say that I am unfamiliar with his work -- except for "Butley", which I only know through the movie. I definitely would like to read the Diaries. As always, thank you for dropping by, and for the recommendation.