Today I would like to talk about a rather fascinating poem by the unique British writer Walter de la Mare.
It is a simple poem, and does not require much explanation. Its fascination lies in its atmosphere of that mixture of the sense of the passage of time and of sadness in solitude, a feeling we often find in hokku verses. The Japanese call it sabishisa, but we have no adequate single word for it in English, though the translation of the the old Latin expression lacrimae rerum — “the tears of things” — meaning the sadness inherent in the world as it is — points us in the right direction.
Here is the poem:
THE OLD SUMMERHOUSE
This blue-washed, old, thatched summerhouse —
Paint scaling, and fading from its walls —
How often from its hingeless door
I have watched — dead leaf, like the ghost of a mouse,
Rasping the worn brick floor —
The snows of the weir descending below,
And their thunderous waterfall.
Fall — fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more — for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne:
The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;
That music, remote, forlorn.
De la Mare shows us a summerhouse — one of those light and simple outdoor structures in which one can sit out of the direct heat and glare of the sun in summer. It is painted a pale blue, and its paint, applied long ago, is peeling and flaking off the walls. That alone gives us the feeling of time having passed, of a depth of years.
“How often,” he says, “from its hingeless door I have watched the snows of the weir descending below, and their thunderous waterfall.”
He is there now, but he is also — mentally — there in the past. He looks out of the opening in the summerhouse, a “door” that is not really a physical door, just an open doorway — down the slope toward the river and its weir. A weir is a kind of low dam built across a river, over which the waters pour continuously, with a pool held behind it and the flow of the river continuing beyond it. The poet recalls how he has gazed out at that weir in times past, watching its “snows” — meaning the white fall of water cascading over the weir –and listening to “their thunderous waterfall,” the sound of the water plunging down from all along the top of the weir to the river below.
But in telling us that, de la Mare inserts a parenthetical statement to tell us that as he watched the weir, a dry leaf caught in a swirl of wind inside the summerhouse made a dry, rasping sound on the worn bricks of the summerhouse floor, a movement and sound “like the ghost of a mouse.” That too gives us a sense of the passing of time, because the rasp is not “like a mouse,” but rather slightly eerie, like “the ghost of a mouse.” De la Mare enjoys injecting a sense of the eerie into his verses.
He again gives us the sense of the passage of time as he describes further his attention focused on the weir and its falling waters, and what he experiences is
“Fall — fall, dark, garrulous rumour.”
The sound of the plunging waters is continuous, and though their appearance is white, their sound to him is dark, a garrulous (like continuous, pointless babble) rumour. Here rumour is used to mean a persistent noise.
The poet hears this sound until he can listen no more, and here we get to the heart, the essence of the poem:
“–for beauty with sorrow
is a burden hard to be borne:”
That is an idea we do not often hear, but it is commonplace in hokku; that in beautiful things there is also sorrow, because beauty is transient in this world. As Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay.” Every adolescent who has a first crush on some beautiful person knows from experience — even though it may be in retrospect — that with beauty comes a pain so deep as to be felt physically.
For de la Mare, that beauty is the faded summerhouse, the rasping leaf swirling on the brick floor, the white water cascading over the weir and its continuous, loud “dark” murmur, and with those,
The evening light on the foam, and the swans,there;
“That music, remote, forlorn.”
Does he hear a distant, lonely melody from a nearby house? Or does he mean only the music of the weir and its sights?
I like to think he means the former, with the sound of the water coming from the river, and the thin, lonely sound of someone playing a piano drifting, half heard, across the lawn to the summerhouse.
A characteristic of de la Mare’s poetry is that he often does not wish to tell us the whole story; he just presents us with an atmosphere, with things caught in the sense of time long passing, and then he lets us feel the emotions and think the thoughts thus aroused within us. Did he come to the summerhouse with sorrow? Or did the sorrow come with the summerhouse?