Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday Soliloquy-- Learning to Love the Language

Today my mind is still on those seminal books of my childhood which I still own. I will never willingly part with them. Almost all of these cherished books deal with various forms of nature that I showed a fascination with quite early in life. Most of them do, but not all.

There is one book in particular that isn't a nature guide book. It is a small, tattered, cloth-covered volume of poems. More than any other single tome, this old book bred in me a love of the English language and the miraculous ways that words can be put together to create beauty. It also fostered a belief in me of the power of old things to be beautiful, to touch the spirit, and to teach the soul.

I can still remember the day I ran across this well-worn little book. When I was a child, my grandparents began collecting antiques. They would go to estate sales, and it wasn't unusual for them to come home with box lots of items, go through the contents, keep what they wanted and discard the rest. My grandmother had just finished going through a large box of items, and I found this on the discard pile:

Perhaps it's because I want you to fall in love with this book as I did, but I sincerely hope that you'll click on the photos to view them full size so you can catch all the detail. When I saw this unwanted book, I was immediately drawn to it. The gold in the lettering and on the daisies softly glowed in the sunlight. Even at that age, I loved flowers, and I wanted to know what a "garden of verses" was. I opened it.

"Copyright Boston, 1898"...even as a child in the early 1960s, I felt that Boston and the year 1898 were far away and long ago-- both things that made the book even more special. And look! There were more daisies etched in gold! My grandmother looked over to see what I was doing. Obviously the look on my face told her something because she said, "If you like that book, you can have it." After a big smile and an even bigger "Thank you!", I was off with my newly-discovered treasure.

I sat down on the bench beneath the shade of a blossoming magnolia tree and looked at the goldfish swimming in the pools for a moment before opening the book again. Once I started to read, I was lost to everything around me. Robert Louis Stevenson's words flowed together in a way that I'd never seen before. I tried some of the lines aloud and smiled. I loved the way they sounded. And the things he talked about! When I was a child, I battled many an illness. What child who'd ever been sick could not read and identify with

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day

from The Land of Counterpane? Or this one that reminded me of my favorite playground activity?

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh! I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Mr. Stevenson even seemed to have dreams like I did, at least it looked that way when I devoured The Land of Nod:

That one little tattered book began my lifelong love of poetry and of language. As a child, I knew nothing of rhyme, meter or form. I just knew what sounded right, and which poems seemed charged with light and power and emotion. Poetry to me has always seemed prose stripped to its essence, full of imagery and feeling. Daisies From A Child's Garden of Verses was the beginning of all this for me. This book is what made me begin to learn to love the language.

Over the years, I've moved on from Robert Louis Stevenson's verses for children. Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, and Robert Frost are just three of the poets who make the hair on the back of my neck rise. But Robert Louis Stevenson will always own a very special place in my heart.

What about you? Are books more than stories to be told or characters to enjoy? Does the perfect combination of words on a page make your heart sing? What are the books that began your lifelong love affair with language?


  1. As my mother didn´t read much, I was left to pick my own books and no one taught me to love poetry until I was grown up.

    Wonderful post about a marvelous book which made all the difference ;)

  2. What a treasure you found in the discard pile! I used to have A Child's Garden of Verses and loved it.

  3. What a beautiful book, thanks for sharing it.

  4. A Child's Garden of Verses was one of my favourite books as a child. Over the years I lost my copy. So last year I bought myself a new one and had a lovely time reading the poems again - I could still remember the words of lots of them.

  5. What a lovely book.
    I don't know that I ever read poetry as a kid...maybe why I never really developed a taste for it.

    I don't think that I have any books from my childhood either. My mother...and therefore I as well as a child...was all about the library. Love them or hate them, they were due back in two weeks.

  6. Dorte--poetry seems to be the one genre that scares the pudding out of people. It shouldn't frighten them at all. I'm glad you learned a bit about it once you grew up. :)

    Kathy--I have the complete Child's Garden of Verses as well as this tattered old thing, but the tattered old thing means more to me than the one in mint condition! :)

    You're welcome, Lisa!

    Margaret--those words certainly do stay with a person who loves them. I'm glad it was one of your favorite books as a child, too. :)

    Caite--You may not have learned the book collecting bug at a young age, but you learned the love of reading, and that's what matters!

  7. This was such a great post, Cathy! Thanks for sharing that very special book.

    I too have had a lifelong affair with language. The poems that started it all in primary school were several from the Australian bush poets, like Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, ballads like The Inchcape Rock, and then The Australian Sunrise - I distinctly remember shivering when I realised this guy must have seen what I had seen, only he knew how to share it.( )

    Books are so many things, and meet different needs at different times. But in recent years, I have begun to prize authors whose clever use of language enhances the story they are telling. One such US author is Barbara Kingsolver.

    So yes, the perfect combination of words definitely makes my heart sing - and often stays with me and gives me ear worm, finally fades, only to be brought out again at an appropriate time. Frost is a constant companion - something will happen to brighten my day and I will stand and think:
    "The way a crow shook down on me, The dust of snow from a hemlock tree, Has given my heart a change of mood, And saved some part of a day I'd rued." I have no idea what a hemlock tree is, it never snows where I live, but I resonate nonetheless to Frost's own love affair with language.

  8. What a wonderful comment, Susan. Thanks so much for sharing that! I had a very surreal moment once on the night of a brilliant full moon up in the mountains. I was sitting in the car listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata when a series of clouds began moving across the moon *in perfect time to the music*! I remember sitting there thinking, "Beethoven and I have seen the same thing, but only Beethoven knew how to share it."

  9. These are amazing! What treasures to have! I would never let them go either.

  10. You are a lucky woman to have such a beautiful book, and I can picture the smile and big little girl eyes on your face when your grandmother gave it to you.

    And it's such a shame that books like this one aren't made any more, except perhaps by specialists. This is what I would call a "real" book.

  11. Jenners-I'm hanging on to them... tight!

    Charlie--I've got several "real" books on my shelves. They're just different from the rest. Feel different, look different... they almost have a glow to them!


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