Ah, yes! Andrew Marvell. Not long ago, I was down there, paying respects to his statue in Hull, alongside the vast and impressive Holy Trinity Church (bigger, more prepossessing than many a Cathedral).
But let him and his vegetable love (which must be one of the weirdest come-ons in erotic verse) rest by the tide Of Humber.
Except Time is relative. For the young, it races. Then it slows to a methodical bovine plod — as in the open vowels of Marvell’s antithetical slow-chapped power.
Here I am in York, a bit further north from Hull and the Humber. And this day has been a heavy, slow one. The wraiths of low clouds were barely skeining past the upper parts of York Minister, when I passed by this morning. The paving stones of Petergate were greasy wet. Even the odd Asian tourist was having difficulty working up enthusiasm for his photo-opportunity. There was a hollowness to the toll of Great Peter, the Minister bell, under the rabbit-grey sky.
That’s your “foreshadowing”: here at Malcolm Redfellow‘s we run a traditional, structured service. Most of the time.
“Peter”, “vegetable”, “rabbit”: no prize as to where I am meandering here.
The gap between the ages
A couple of posts back, I was much taken by Richard Holmes and his Footsteps, Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. Out of necessity, I found — not the fine library edition I once had —but a battered Collins Classics pocketbook edition. Then I was comparing Homes with his model, RLS, trekking across the Cevennes.
And I came to this:
It was bleak and bitter cold, and, except a cavalcade of stride-legged ladies and a pair of post-runners, the road was dead solitary all the way to Pradelles. I scarce remember an incident but one. A handsome foal with a bell about his neck came charging up to us upon a stretch of common, sniffed the air martially as one about to do great deeds, and suddenly thinking otherwise in his green young heart, put about and galloped off as he had come, the bell tinkling in the wind. For a long while afterwards I saw his noble attitude as he drew up, and heard the note of his bell; and when I struck the high-road, the song of the telegraph-wires seemed to continue the same music…
On both sides of the road, in big dusty fields, farmers were preparing for next spring. Every fifty yards a yoke of great-necked stolid oxen were patiently haling at the plough. I saw one of these mild formidable servants of the glebe, who took a sudden interest in Modestine and me. The furrow down which he was journeying lay at an angle to the road, and his head was solidly fixed to the yoke like those of caryatides below a ponderous cornice; but he screwed round his big honest eyes and followed us with a ruminating look, until his master bade him turn the plough and proceed to reascend the field. From all these furrowing ploughshares, from the feet of oxen, from a labourer here and there who was breaking the dry clods with a hoe, the wind carried away a thin dust like so much smoke.
I must admit to being taken up short: the combination of the song of the telegraph-wires and a yoke of great-necked stolid oxen in just a few lines.
And this was … when?
The book appeared in 1879, and Stevenson made the trip the previous year: forty years after the refinement of the electric telegraph, and about as many before the petrol-powered agricultural tractor. Stevenson was not just the prototype back-packer, with his over-sized sleeping bag (which he reminds us, was big enough for two), he was also a witness to the changes happening and to come.
A touch of Benjamin and his cousin/wife Flopsy
Twin-tracking Holmes and RLS is rewarding. It can also be doze-inducing. That was when “Peter”, “vegetable”, “rabbit” came together.
My semi-somnolence somehow induced memories of putting infant daughters to sleep — also that definitive forty years previous: another taste of the Humber-slow flow of time. The trick was the slow, measured level-voice, reading whatever was to hand, which might be Beatrix Potter.
It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is “soporific.”
I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit.
They certainly had a very soporific effect upon the Flopsy Bunnies!
When Benjamin Bunny grew up, he married his Cousin Flopsy. They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.
I do not remember the separate names of their children; they were generally called the “Flopsy Bunnies.”
As there was not always quite enough to eat,—Benjamin used to borrow cabbages from Flopsy’s brother, Peter Rabbit, who kept a nursery garden.
Sometimes Peter Rabbit had no cabbages to spare.
When this happened, the Flopsy Bunnies went across the field to a rubbish heap, in the ditch outside Mr. McGregor’s garden.
Mr. McGregor’s rubbish heap was a mixture. There were jam pots and paper bags, and mountains of chopped grass from the mowing machine (which always tasted oily), and some rotten vegetable marrows and an old boot or two. One day—oh joy!—there were a quantity of overgrown lettuces, which had “shot” into flower.