Consider, for instance, the dream of the cottage. A nest. The small, clear space of tranquility, serenity, and contentment that we long for. At long last, peace and quiet.
Were I a king, I could command content.
Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares.
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor loves, nor hopes, nor fears.
A doubtful choice, of three things one to crave,
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.
Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Longmans 1925). The poem is untitled.
"A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave." Is this indeed "a doubtful choice"? I think not. Obscurity is a good thing. "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert, most obscure/From all societies, from love and hate/Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure . . ." What could be better than living an obscure life in an obscure cottage?
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (Unwin 1892).
As I have noted here before, I am unapologetically enamored of the cape-wearing Yeats of the 1890s, the Celtic Twilight Yeats. This is no doubt the result of coming across his early poems in my impressionable youth. But I see no reason to change my feelings. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" will always remain dear to me.
Of course, even before he replaced his capes with fur coats and began delivering imperious, patronizing speeches in the Irish Senate about the small-mindedness of "the middle-class," the thought of Yeats hand-building a cabin and cultivating nine rows of beans was a risible one. Still, he was entitled to dream. As are we all. To wish to abide where "peace comes dropping slow" is not, and never will be, an idle dream.
Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"
Is the cottage dream nothing more than a "fond dream," "a lie, . . . a kindly meant lie"? Modern ironists would think so, and would add what they consider to be the killing epithet: "a sentimental dream." However, the poets think otherwise, from the epigrammatists of The Greek Anthology to T'ao Ch'ien and Wang Wei, from the Japanese haiku poets to William Wordsworth and John Clare, from Horace to Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown. I attend to the poets.
The Old Cottagers
The little cottage stood alone, the pride
Of solitude surrounded every side.
Bean fields in blossom almost reached the wall;
A garden with its hawthorn hedge was all
The space between. -- Green light did pass
Through one small window, where a looking-glass
Placed in the parlour, richly there revealed
A spacious landscape and a blooming field.
The pasture cows that herded on the moor
Printed their footsteps to the very door,
Where little summer flowers with seasons blow
And scarcely gave the eldern leave to grow.
The cuckoo that one listens far away
Sung in the orchard trees for half the day;
And where the robin lives, the village guest,
In the old weedy hedge the leafy nest
Of the coy nightingale was yearly found,
Safe from all eyes as in the loneliest ground;
And little chats that in bean stalks will lie
A nest with cobwebs there will build, and fly
Upon the kidney bean that twines and towers
Up little poles in wreaths of scarlet flowers.
There a lone couple lived, secluded there
From all the world considers joy or care,
Lived to themselves, a long lone journey trod,
And through their Bible talked aloud to God;
While one small close and cow their wants maintained,
But little needing, and but little gained.
Their neighbour's name was peace, with her they went,
With tottering age, and dignified content,
Through a rich length of years and quiet days,
And filled the neighbouring village with their praise.
John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).
I am no doubt simple-minded or easily impressed (or both), but my love for the poem turns upon eight words: "Green light did pass/Through one small window." No explanation or explication or commentary is necessary.
(An aside: Clare's ten-line apostrophe on birds is wonderful. How typical of him. Does any poet exceed him in the love of birds? A further aside: the passage brings to mind the final line of "Happy were he could finish forth his fate": "Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.")
Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"
On a recent evening, I stood at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the branches of a camellia tree that stands beside the house. If I open the window, I can reach out and touch the leaves. The camellia and I have kept each other company for 22 years. In each of those years, I have seen its red flowers bloom, turn rusty brown, and fall away. How could I have paid so little attention to it through all of those vanished seasons? "The blossoms did not betray me. I betrayed the blossoms."
Dear readers, we each have it within us to live the cottage life. It is not a mere dream. I have said this in the past, and I will say it again: at this moment, we live in Paradise.
A Cool Retreat
Boughs with apples laden around me whisper;
Cool the waters trickle among the branches;
And I listen dreamily, till a languor
Stealeth upon me.
Sappho (translated by Percy Osborn), in Percy Osborn, The Poems of Sappho (Elkin Matthews 1909). As is the case with nearly all of Sappho's recovered poetry, this is a fragment of a lost poem. Osborn added the title.
Another translation of the same fragment:
. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .
Sappho (translated by Kenneth Rexroth), in Kenneth Rexroth, Poems from the Greek Anthology (University of Michigan Press 1962).
Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"