It had been believed that Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) composed Beauty and Beauty for a male friend, until in 1999 a fascinating discovery was made.
Half a century earlier, a bundle of correspondence was presented to the British Museum library by the sister of Phyllis Gardner, an art student who had a secret love affair with the young poet before World War I. Among the letters, donated on condition that they should not be read for 50 years, was this poem, clearly dedicated to Phyllis.
The romance was short-lived but its electric atmosphere has been forever preserved in these lines of immense charm and drama.
When Beauty and Beauty meet All naked, fair to fair, The earth is crying-sweet, And scattering-bright the air, Eddying, dizzying, closing round, With soft and drunken laughter; Veiling all that may befall
Where Beauty and Beauty met, Earth’s still a-tremble there, And winds are scented yet, And memory-soft the air, Bosoming, folding glints of light, And shreds of shadowy laughter; Not the tears that fill the years After—after—
Even if you haven’t read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you’ve almost certainly seen its 2005 adaptation starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.
Roald Dahl (1916-1990) wrote for kids as if they were adults – without sentimentality but with plenty of dark humour and the macabre. No wonder he turned to the old children’s classic Little Red Riding Hood. In his version of events there’s no room for the hunter saving the girl and her grandmother as the little heroine needs no help in killing the wolf.
As soon as Wolf began to feel That he would like a decent meal, He went and knocked on Grandma’s door. When Grandma opened it, she saw The sharp white teeth, the horrid grin, And Wolfie said, ‘May I come in?’
Poor Grandmamma was terrified, ‘He’s going to eat me up!’ she cried. And she was absolutely right. He ate her up in one big bite. But Grandmamma was small and tough, And Wolfie wailed, ‘That’s not enough! I haven’t yet begun to feel That I have had a decent meal!’ He ran around the kitchen yelping, ‘I’ve got to have a second helping!’ Then added with a frightful leer, ‘I’m therefore going to wait right here Till Little Miss Red Riding Hood Comes home from walking in the wood.’
He quickly put on Grandma’s clothes, (Of course he hadn’t eaten those). He dressed himself in coat and hat. He put on shoes, and after that, He even brushed and curled his hair, Then sat himself in Grandma’s chair.
In came the little girl in red. She stopped. She stared. And then she said, ‘What great big ears you have, Grandma.’ ‘All the better to hear you with,’ the Wolf replied. ‘What great big eyes you have, Grandma.’ said Little Red Riding Hood. ‘All the better to see you with,’ the Wolf replied. He sat there watching her and smiled. He thought, ‘I’m going to eat this child. Compared with her old Grandmamma, She’s going to taste like caviar.’
Then Little Red Riding Hood said, ‘But Grandma, what a lovely great big furry coat you have on.’ ‘That’s wrong!’ cried Wolf. ‘Have you forgot To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got? Ah well, no matter what you say, I’m going to eat you anyway.’
The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers. She aims it at the creature’s head, And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood, I came across Miss Riding Hood. But what a change! No cloak of red, No silly hood upon her head. She said, ‘Hello, and do please note My lovely furry wolfskin coat.’
I became familiar with this beautiful verse when watching a YouTube video of Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on life and love given in London in July 2019 as part of the promotional campaign for her new book City of Girls. It perfectly captures, quoting Milan Kundera, the unbearable lightness of being and inspires the reader to be strong and loving and appreciative of life no matter what it throws your way. Day by day, until the end.
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953) is considered one of the greatest English writers of light verse along with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
His cautionary tales are addressed, first and foremost, to naughty children and, with a great deal of humour and playfulness, serve as warnings – if you fail to behave, you’ll get in trouble as did Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death.
Matilda told such Dreadful Lies, It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes; Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth, Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth, Attempted to Believe Matilda: The effort very nearly killed her, And would have done so, had not She Discovered this Infirmity. For once, towards the Close of Day, Matilda, growing tired of play, And finding she was left alone, Went tiptoe to the Telephone And summoned the Immediate Aid Of London’s Noble Fire-Brigade. Within an hour the Gallant Band Were pouring in on every hand, From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow. With Courage high and Hearts a-glow, They galloped, roaring through the Town, ‘Matilda’s House is Burning Down!’ Inspired by British Cheers and Loud Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd, They ran their ladders through a score Of windows on the Ball Room Floor; And took Peculiar Pains to Souse The Pictures up and down the House, Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded In showing them they were not needed; And even then she had to pay To get the Men to go away, It happened that a few Weeks later Her Aunt was off to the Theatre To see that Interesting Play The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. She had refused to take her Niece To hear this Entertaining Piece: A Deprivation Just and Wise To Punish her for Telling Lies. That Night a Fire did break out – You should have heard Matilda Shout! You should have heard her Scream and Bawl, And throw the window up and call To People passing in the Street – (The rapidly increasing Heat Encouraging her to obtain Their confidence) – but all in vain! For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’ They only answered ‘Little Liar!’ And therefore when her Aunt returned, Matilda, and the House, were Burned.
This poem is basically an impressive list of similes.
A simile is an expression that describes something by comparing it with something else, using words such as like, as, as if, as though. For example, as quiet as a mouse (very quiet) and like a bull in a china shop (very clumsy) are similes.
Some of them can be found in dictionaries, others are the author’s coinages. Can you tell which is which?
Today, I feel as:
Pleased as PUNCH, Fit as a FIDDLE, Keen as a KNIFE, Hot as a GRIDDLE, Bold as BRASS, Bouncy as a BALL, Keen as MUSTARD, High as a WALL, Bright as a BUTTON, Light as a FEATHER, Fresh as a DAISY, Fragrant as HEATHER, Chirpy as a CRICKET, Sound as a BELL, Sharp as a NEEDLE, Deep as a WELL, High as a KITE, Strong as a BULL, Bubbly as BATH WATER, Warm as WOOL, Clean as a new PIN, Shiny as MONEY, Quick as LIGHTENING, Sweet as HONEY, Cool as a CUCUMBER, Fast as a HARE, Right as RAIN, Brave as a BEAR, Lively as a MONKEY, Busy as a BEE, Good as GOLD, Free as the SEA.
Alan Alexander Milne (1882 – 1956) was an English author, known in all corners of the world thanks to his books about a teddy bear called Winnie-the-Pooh. He also wrote poetry. I chose his verse The Three Foxes to share with you today because it reminds me of a curious linguistic anecdote.
Desiderata (Latin: “something that is wanted or needed”) was written in early 1920s by the American writer Max Ehrmann as a prose poem, i.e. in the form of one long prose paragraph. It was only long after the author’s death in 1945 that the poem got its verse-like appearance. It is now his most well-known piece of poetry.
I like it a lot, despite its lack of rhyme, for the wisdom of the advice and encouragement it offers and for the sense of internal peace it creates in your heart.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.