All These I Learnt

A poem by Robert Byron (1905-1941) read by Prince Charles today for National Poetry Day in Britain. More and more poetry is ending up as audio, which is fine by me. I was a fan of Frost readings as a child, and after listening to his 78s over and over, never felt the written page captured his intent.

Unfortunately we will never know if Prince Charles’ reading is close to how Byron might have handled his own work since the poet met an untimely end at just 35 years old — he was lost at sea when his ship was destroyed by a German U-boat in WWII.

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit.

He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury, wood- sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot.

He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap.

He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood- pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak- plumes.

He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves.

He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions.

He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills – dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven.

In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf.

He shall know grasses, timothy and wag -wanton, and dust his finger- tips in Yorkshire fog.

By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple pikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water- mint where the rat dives silently from its hole.

He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore- hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony.

At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange- tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows.

He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit.

He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning.

He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue – glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky – and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet.

He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass.

He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings.

He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air- raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death’s head.

He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost.

They were my own discoveries.

They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention.

They gave me a first content with the universe.

Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!

Was Byron survived by a son? The British Navy named a Frigate the HMS Byron (perhaps in memory of John Byron (1723-1786) a former rear admiral). It was built by the US in 1943, fittingly sunk two U-boats, and was scrapped by 1947.

Edited to add (15 Oct 2006): The Guardian has a nice write-up on Byron’s inspirations and insights:

While many of his Oxford contemporaries initially took a benign view of Hitler – Unity Mitford crowing over her “delicious Stormies” (stormtroopers) and Evelyn Waugh cheering on Mussolini’s fascists in Ethiopia – Byron was an arch-enemy of both fascism and appeasement: “I am going to have Warmonger put on my passport,” he declared. “These people are so grotesque, if we go to war it will be like fighting an enormous zoo.”

In the strange confrontation that took place in English life in the late 1930s, as the gilded butterflies of Brideshead found themselves confronted by the goosestepping armies of Nazi Germany, few got it as right as Byron.

In this context, it seems that his poem was a call to secure and preserve the openness and beauty of the English countryside. Was it a call to arms against the Nazis? No, I don’t believe he was specifying any one threat but rather all threats, or at least expressing the need to truly appreciate the value of natural resources and thus imply a commitment to better understanding and reducing vulnerabilities on behalf of future generations. Just a thought…

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