It’s an age away – and was rather an extraordinary idyll. But for our first 3 months of marriage, we lived in a little terrace house in Newnham, Cambridge, which was just a few minutes walk from Grantchester Meadows. It was one of those lovely English summers that you don’t forget – and therefore perfectly set for nostalgia and memory. We used to wander down to the village of Grantchester to the fabled Tea Rooms of a mellow summer afternoon (though not nearly as regularly as we would have liked or thought we did). We’d go past the Old Rectory where Rupert Brooke (right) lived (and which was, slightly less impressively, then owned by Jeffrey Archer) and about which he yearningly and hauntingly wrote from the 1WW front. Though it has to be said that the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Brooke’s heart-breaking poem was in the midst of doing battle with the nightmare that is the Greek optative (ειθε γενοιμην)! But that’s another story.
So it was a real joy to find this extraordinary piece by Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail. It’s an evocative meditation on the sense of history that a place like this creates – one can’t help but think of the countless, extraordinary minds that perhaps wandered down to Grantchester for some R&R, from Herbert & Newton onwards.
Across Grantchester Meadows, May has snowed
cow parsnips, hawthorn, chestnut a stone’s throw
from here the Cam grooves slowly towards King’s.
An English heaven: ‘My real life’s began since
I came to Grantchester I eat strawberries and honey.
A perfectly glorious time. Think only this of me.’
I see you Rupert Brook blazered, flannelled,
a strolling presence in this albescent funnel
of young summer or picnicking under an oak
with Darwin’s granddaughters: ‘We used to talk
wearily about art, suicide, and the sex problem.’
Übermensch, libido, absinthe, fin de siècle.
A 100 rings in an oak which may have seen
George Herbert brooding by the Came or Milton
explaining the ways of God now Galileo’s sun
no longer danced attendance on our world. Newton,
did you some midsummer hatch along this path
laws to bring our universe back to earth?
‘Certainly I approve of war at any price,
it kills the unnecessary.’ Evenings of tennis
and cricket. It’s the Aegean 1913:
‘My poem is to be about the existence of England.’
Dead before the Dardanelles. A circle closes;
the hawthorn almost in bloom, the oak leafless.
Wars. Disillusion. Certainty a fallen idol,
our daylight turns a dice-dance of potential.
Turmoil of change as an old order dies
into us. Herbert must have known the crux.
Does the slow-leafing oak trust without proof?
I know the ways of learning yet I love.
Ghost Brook you could be my father’s father,
yet I’m your elder. Ride my Aeneas shoulder
as Grantchester blooms a lover’s carte-blanche,
another innocence. Do you remember how strange
the fullness of the riddle seemed? The acorn can’t
explain the oak, the oak explains the acorn.
(Hail Madam Jazz, p122)