Sunday, December 03, 2006

Originating over at Cam's Commentary, a poetry meme is currently doing the rounds, and while I won't do the whole thing, something happened yesterday to inspire me. It was a wretched, wailing storm of a day (wind howling like a freight train and lashing rain); I was absolutely drenched by the time I'd walked into town and after drying off (mostly) over coffee, I decided to sit out the worst by dashing from secondhand bookshop to secondhand bookshop, exploring.

Because it is off the main high street I tend to ignore the charming Chaucer Bookshop. Should you pay the city a visit, I recommend a detour here if you are a booklover, or collecter of engravings. You can lose yourself for hours - it is cosy and well-stocked with a really interesting collection (which has the added benefit of being largely well organized). I suspect that with the demise of The Albion, The Chaucer Bookshop will become my favourite haunt. It is not cheap as it is not a charity shop (which all the other secondhand shops in town are), but most of the stock is antiquarian or good, clean secondhand copies at roughly half the market price. You will find excellent gifts here, and books to own and cherish.

By chance, I spotted a book now out of print but still widely available on abebooks and amazon, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF IRISH VERSE edited by Brendan Kennelly. I snaffled it up, as it happens to contain my favourite poem.

Context, of course, is everything. I was raised in an activist household during the apartheid era. This was a poem we were taught when I was young by my wonderful parents for whom the cost of standing up to be counted as people opposed to apartheid, was considerable at the time. This poem spoke to them, and it spoke to me, and it may yet speak to you if you are working towards a world you imagine as better, but not yet achieved.

Several significant events in my life surround the poem. It was read at my baptism. I of course don't remember the occasion as I was a baby, but it has special significance as a result. My father read it as a farewell to a parish that had treated his vision for a new South Africa with some incomprehension. The high school I attended, while academically excellent, was a grim place for a teenager who felt (and was treated) as an outsider. We were asked to select for class a poem with special meaning to us and explain why. Aged 17, I recited this poem as my chosen selection:
THE FOOL - Patrick Pearse, 1879-1916

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses, or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.
Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.

I have squandered the splendid years:
Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me!
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard, Shall do the deed of today, nor take thought of tomorrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, 'This man is a fool,' and others have said, 'He blasphemeth';
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word. Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith.

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved shall we not answer together?

Patrick Pearse was executed, Easter of 1916, following the Irish uprising.

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