The other evening I was chatting by phone with my Aunt Marion, my late father’s older sister. We were talking about the weather – it was a rainy night where she was, outside the tiny hamlet of Gelert in Ontario’s Haliburton County, and also where I was, in Montreal. Suddenly and spontaneously she came up with some lovely lines of verse:
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
“Who wrote that?” I asked her. “Oh, you know – that American!” she answered, having forgotten the name herself. “The one who wrote about ‘Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
and Edith with golden hair.’ ”
Continuing to show my poetical ignorance, I drew a blank, though those last lines in particular sounded awfully familiar.
As well they should have. They are are all lines by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose family home in Portland, Maine, Raymond and I visited last summer when we were on vacation in that area. The first lines are the second and third of many verses in the poem called The Day Is Done, quite a lovely piece about night falling that turns weird in the very last verse with an unfortunate racial reference:
And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
And the lines about the three girls are from Longfellow’s extraordinarily famous (and charming) poem The Children’s Hour, about his three daughters.
I have two things to say about all of that: one, that the first lines, about the lights of the village in the mist, make me think of the welcome feeling of arriving in Queensborough after a long drive late on a rainy, misty night; and two, that the education of my father and his siblings, the way they learned so many poems that even now, seven decades later, Aunt Marion can quote word for word, at will, whenever the mood strikes, was truly remarkable. When my siblings and I were growing up in the Manse, it was with a father – and sometimes my mum too – who could recite apparently endless amounts of poetry learned by heart. We took it for granted, and it was only later that I realized how extraordinary it was. There is a lot to be said for what was taught in those one-room schoolhouses like the one Dad and his sisters attended in Gelert.
Well, it’s late. Let’s leave with some more nice lines about nightfall from Mr. Longfellow – which doubtless Aunt Marion could give you by heart.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.