In Primary School we were introduced to Leisure, a sonnet, of sorts, from the 1911 anthology Songs of Joy and Others by the Welsh poet W. H. Davies (1871 – 1940):
What is this life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when wood we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
Perhaps it is confabulation on my part, but I have a memory of being sharply reprimanded by the teacher, for looking out of the window, while we were studying this poem. “Campbell! What planet are you on? Get your nose back into that book!” Or words to that effect. Even then, the irony of the situation was not lost on me.
We also read W. B. Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Recently, quite fortuitously, I have discovered my own Innisfree. It is a lochan two miles to the north of my village. No road leads there. You can only go there, crossing the countryside on foot. I went yesterday, stopping beneath the boughs to stand and stare, along with the sheep and cows. In the woodland I saw no squirrels, but I saw deer, and hare. Birdsong was ever present, and the steady hum of insects. It was a sunny day, a little colder than it has been, but very bright. The streams of fresh clear water were indeed full of stars. Two thirds of the way to my lochan there is a hill which affords a wonderful view of my village. From here, it looks rather continental European; I could be in Provence. There was beauty all around. I have to admit I didn’t observe any dancing feet, nor any bewitching smiles, because all the way out to the lochan I never passed a soul. I was alone in my bee-loud glade.
Is it my imagination, or are there clear signs that nature has benefited from “The Covid Pause”? The air seems fresher, the water cleaner, livestock more content, and wildlife more plentiful. I wonder if our fellow creatures have an awareness that there is a new dispensation. Surely they take delight in the silence.
Our politicians are in a bind. They are being pressurised to provide a route map back to “normality”, but how can you draw a map when you do not know the contours of the terrain to be crossed? There is no treatment for coronavirus, and no vaccine. There is no firm evidence that immunity can be acquired, let alone retained. We might hope that the pandemic spontaneously regresses, as most pandemics have done in the past; but there is no reason to assume that it will. We don’t know whether April has indeed been the cruellest month. We may have to live (or die) with this thing for the foreseeable future.
I heard a politician on the radio the other day say that the third runway at Heathrow is “on hold”. And I thought, no, no. The third runway at Heathrow is history. Having touched Innisfree, why would we ever want to go back? Surely our whole modus operandi has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Why would you want to get on a crowded train and commute large distances to and from work? Why would you want to sit in a traffic jam on the M25 listening to the travel report on Radio 2 – “mayhem clock and anti”? Why would you want to build HS2, at enormous cost and with enormous environmental disruption, just in order to shave half an hour off a train journey? Why would you want to borrow millions of pounds to buy a cramped apartment in central London, and spend a lifetime paying off the mortgage? Why would you want to send your children to a private school, so that they can “get ahead”?
Count me out. I’m done with all that din. I want to hear my lochan’s water lapping.
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.