Thursday, 6 March 2014

'A noise of great good coming into earth'

Last weekend I took a stroll in Addison's Walk, in the grounds of Magdalen College in Oxford, where a few years ago the above plaque was installed, bearing this poem by C. S. Lewis:

'What the Bird Said Early in the Year'

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

What could be more appropriate to contemplate in Magdalen on a sunny day in early spring? One appealing thing which makes this poem so apt for its setting is that Addison's Walk is circular - so it does indeed always bring you back to the place you started from, like the cycle of the year. (Well, unless you double back on yourself. But who would wilfully spoil such a perfect metaphor?)

The other version of Lewis' poem suggests that in writing this he was actually thinking of a period slightly later in the spring than March. Magdalen, where they sing madrigals at dawn on May Morning, has always seemed to me nearly synonymous with May, and in May its grounds are covered in flowers (this is what they look like in April); so perhaps this should be thought of as a Maytime poem. At the moment it's still very early in the year; the trees are mostly bare, and the fritillaries for which Magdalen's gardens are famous are still lurking underground, but there are snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses in plenty.

After a winter of rain the rivers are full, and at the moment are sounding louder and looking browner than usual. The Cherwell is generally a very placid river, not giving to roaring; but it's proved itself a formidable force this winter, and is still swollen beyond its usual banks.

This spring a poem by Lewis has been in my mind; not 'What the bird said early in the year', but this, the conclusion of his narrative poem Dymer, published in 1926:

A leap--a cry--flurry of steel and claw,
Then silence. As before, the morning light
And the same brute crouched yonder; and he saw
Under its feet, broken and bent and white,
The ruined limbs of Dymer, killed outright
All in a moment, all his story done.
...But that same moment came the rising sun;

And thirty miles to westward, the grey cloud
Flushed into answering pink, long shadows streamed
From every hill, and the low-hanging shroud
Of mist along the valleys broke and steamed
Gold-flecked to heaven. Far off the armour gleamed
Like glass upon the dead man's back. But now
The sentinel ran forward, hand to brow.

And staring. For between him and the sun
He saw that country clothed with dancing flowers
Where flower had never grown; and one by one
The splintered woods, as if from April showers,
Were softening into green. In the leafy towers
Rose the cool, sudden chattering on the tongues
Of happy birds with morning in their lungs.

The wave of flowers came breaking round his feet,
Crocus and bluebell, primrose, daffodil
Shivering with moisture: and the air grew sweet
Within his nostrils, changing heart and will,
Making him laugh. He looked, and Dymer still
Lay dead among the flowers and pinned beneath
The brute: but as he looked he held his breath;

For when he had gazed hard with steady eyes
Upon the brute, behold, no brute was there,
But someone towering large against the skies,
A wing'd and sworded shape, whose foam-like hair
Lay white about its shoulders, and the air
That came from it was burning hot. The whole
Pure body rimmed with life, as a full bowl.

And from the distant corner of day's birth
He heard clear trumpets blowing and bells ring,
A noise of great good coming into earth
And such a music as the dumb would sing
If Balder had led back the blameless spring
With victory, with the voice of charging spears,
And in white lands long-lost Saturnian years.

'If Balder had led back the blameless spring / With victory'. The epithet describes Baldr, not the spring, but they're one and the same - he is the blameless god, innocent and beautiful, whose unmerited death is perhaps the most devastating moment in Norse mythology. Killed by the malice of Loki, Baldr is confined in the underworld ruled by the goddess Hel. His grieving mother, Frigg, extracts a promise from Hel that she will release Baldr if all things in the world, alive or dead, will weep for him, 'as all things weep when they come from frost into warmth' (as the Prose Edda puts it). All creatures weep to bring the much-loved god back from the underworld - except one, Loki in disguise, and so Baldr must remain with Hel. There he stays until Ragnarök, the end of the gods, when the world is destroyed after endless winter, fire, and water. But the world will be reborn, and then Baldr will come back to dwell on the green and fertile plains of the new-born earth. Later interpretations have seen Baldr as a Christ-figure, a solar god, and god of the spring - as he is here for Lewis.

There are parallels here with Lewis' description of the miraculous spring which accompanies Aslan's return to Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It was Baldr, we learn from Surprised by Joy, who gave Lewis one of his early experiences of Joy:

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow's Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, like a voice from far more different regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read:

I heard a voice that cried
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead---

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
In the poem quoted here, Baldr is 'God of the summer sun, fairest of all the Gods'. Lewis recreates his moment of Joy for the children and the reader in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when they (and we) first hear the name of Aslan:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Some pages later:
"Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!" said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling - like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

"Who is Aslan?" asked Susan.

"Aslan?" said Mr Beaver. "Why, don't you know? He's the King. He's the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father's time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment... He'll put all to rights, as it says in an old rhyme in these parts:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

'The beginning of summer... like the first signs of spring, like good news.' This 'old rhyme' echoes, I think, the description of the world reborn after Ragnarök in the Norse poem Völuspá: 'böls mun alls batna, / Baldr mun koma', 'all harms will be healed / Baldr will come'. A very old rhyme indeed!

After Narnia's fimbulvetr spring comes with a great rushing thaw, as when all creation weeps for Baldr:

Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer. And the sledge was not running nearly as well as it had been running up till now. At first he thought this was because the reindeer were tired, but soon he saw that that couldn't be the real reason. The sledge jerked, and skidded, and kept on jolting as if it had struck against stones. And however the dwarf whipped the poor reindeer the sledge went slower and slower. There also seemed to be a curious noise all round them, but the noise of their driving and jolting and the dwarf's shouting at the reindeer prevented Edmund from hearing what it was, until suddenly the sledge stuck so fast that it wouldn't go on at all. When that happened there was a moment's silence. And in that silence Edmund could at last listen to the other noise properly. A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise - and yet not so strange, for he'd heard it before - if only he could remember where! Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water. All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over. And much nearer there was a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees. And then, as he looked at one tree he saw a great load of snow slide off it and for the first time since he had entered Narnia he saw the dark green of a fir tree. But he hadn't time to listen or watch any longer, for the Witch said:

"Don't sit staring, fool! Get out and help."

And of course Edmund had to obey. He stepped out into the snow - but it was really only slush by now - and began helping the dwarf to get the sledge out of the muddy hole it had got into. They got it out in the end, and by being very cruel to the reindeer the dwarf managed to get it on the move again, and they drove a little further. And now the snow was really melting in earnest and patches of green grass were beginning to appear in every direction. Unless you have looked at a world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white...

Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow. Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on to the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops.

Soon there were more wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers - celandines. The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing.

"Mind your own business!" said the dwarf when he saw that Edmund had turned his head to look at them; and he gave the rope a vicious jerk.

But of course this didn't prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree - gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds' music, and wherever Edmund's eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.

"Faster! Faster!" said the Witch.

There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

"This is no thaw," said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. "This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan's doing."

"If either of you mention that name again," said the Witch, "he shall instantly be killed."

While the dwarf and the White Witch were saying this, miles away the Beavers and the children were walking on hour after hour into what seemed a delicious dream. Long ago they had left the coats behind them. And by now they had even stopped saying to one another, "Look! there's a kingfisher," or "I say, bluebells!" or "What was that lovely smell?" or "Just listen to that thrush!" They walked on in silence drinking it all in, passing through patches of warm sunlight into cool, green thickets and out again into wide mossy glades where tall elms raised the leafy roof far overhead, and then into dense masses of flowering currant and among hawthorn bushes where the sweet smell was almost overpowering.

They had been just as surprised as Edmund when they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May. They hadn't even known for certain (as the Witch did) that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia. But they all knew that it was her spells which had produced the endless winter; and therefore they all knew when this magic spring began that something had gone wrong, and badly wrong, with the Witch's schemes. And after the thaw had been going on for some time they all realized that the Witch would no longer be able to use her sledge. After that they didn't hurry so much and they allowed themselves more rests and longer ones. They were pretty tired by now of course; but not what I'd call bitterly tired - only slow and feeling very dreamy and quiet inside as one does when one is coming to the end of a long day in the open. Susan had a slight blister on one heel.

They had left the course of the big river some time ago; for one had to turn a little to the right (that meant a little to the south) to reach the place of the Stone Table. Even if this had not been their way they couldn't have kept to the river valley once the thaw began, for with all that melting snow the river was soon in flood - a wonderful, roaring, thundering yellow flood - and their path would have been under water.

What these pictures can't show you, of course, is the sound: the sound of the river, of the bells, of the birds, 'a strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise', 'a noise of great good coming into earth'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the lovely, heartening photos! (But what a Cherwell it is!) Also for the less usual, juxtaposed with the well-known, Lewis!

An Old Mertonian