This poem was first published in 1911, in Poems in Wiltshire.
WHEN massive clouds heave from the north
And hurry o'er the driven lea,
And howling tempests scatter forth
And shiver in the acorn tree,
My drooping soul revives and lives,
We leave the carping school behind,
And pluck the sweets that Nature gives
Where all can lose and none can find.
A nugget of a poem, condensing some of Alfred's essence as a man and as a poet. Again he brings us to a landscape of contrasts and oppositions, where there are no forgone conclusions.
The four first lines, which make up half the poem, are building up a Wuthering Heights scene that conditions us to expect some dramatic event, or the fervid expression of a tumultuous feeling. Instead, we find that what these hurrying clouds and howling tempests do is revive the drooping soul of the poet.
Before we have time recover from the gale-ride and perplexing effect of this seeming contradiction, we are suddenly dropped to the ground among children walking away from school. Dwarfed against the huge powerful forces of nature depicted before, the school seems not only puny but - what's worse - damaging to the children (carping means "tending to make petty complaints; fault-finding"). Drooping suggests dreariness and connects with carping to evoke a dismal image of school life, while the hostile face of Nature paradoxically entices and fascinates the child.
Then, in the same breath, the poem becomes a signed declaration of independence: the we has the co-operative, communal assurance of a concerted plural going about its little bit of revolution. Leave and behind mark the scission with a sick system; a sort of forerunner to Pink-Floyd's The Wall.
The next lines - the last two of the poem - are a thesis for a new world order, where Nature's sweet gifts are up for grabs and the we are up for the taking - rather amazingly, if we remember what the weather was like a minute ago - which suggests a metaphorical upper-storey to the ground floor of the setting.
It could almost be read as a microchip version of eco-Utopia, where the free-roaming sweets-gathering youths have returned to a paradise regained, and the child-friendly yield of untampered-with wilderness hangs there for them at the stretch of their fingers. There is something wonderfully graphic and determined in the sound of pluck beside the softness of sweets. The communal we may easily include all Nature-tuned, freedom-hungry youngsters.
If we close-read the text, the opposition Where all can lose and not be found tells us very succintly of the daily throes of boyhood at any given time of history. In the thick of Nature's game, the child's learning and growing process is not without its challenges; it involves making mistakes, trial and error, but the policies have been turned, and one's failures will not be an occasion for public exposure and humiliation. The seedlings won't be found dampened and drooping.
Alfred was himself a restless, adventurous boy, and the poem probably pictures some of his own childhood experiences in a nutshell. I can't help thinking of a flamenco song by Lole y Manuel which speaks the mind of a bored child during a geography lesson on a winter afternoon:
A voice always shouting "Silence!"..
I escape through the window
I run, I run through the skies
And go, as a celestial rider
On top of a huge black cloud*
It seems boys will be boys, in all times and in all cultures, wanting to be Longfellow's Hiawatha, the little Indian boy (listen to the song here).
Similar views on education had been expressed before, by other poets. One such was William Blake, who in his poem The Schoolboy from Songs of Innocence, voices the child's discontent with the imprisonment and killjoy effect of the traditional room-bound school system.
It is well worth quoting the poem to show how Alfred's poem either echoes or coincides in more than one respect, for instance in the appeal of nature to the young person, the criticism of cruelty in instructors and even the use of drooping and droop to suggest weariness:
Under a cruel eye outworn
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
Ah! then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.
How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?
Note the reference to the learning bower, which Blake illustrated in the next page of his original book as a living tree of entwining branches that grows unimpeded, lending shelter to children playing, a challenge to the child climbing, a support to the child engaged in reading (Blake rejected academicism, but not books or, indeed, learning - and personally taught his illiterate wife, Catherine, to read and write).
It would be interesting to explore to what extent this concept of the learning bower was linked with the idea of education through Nature and whether Alfred was thinking of it when writing Among the Leaves; the title itself could be evocative of it.
Another poet of the same mind, Wordsworth, had likewise expanded on the topic in his The Prelude, revealing his frustrations as much with those pupils seen as dunces, recusants and idlers as with
The tutors of our youth
The guides, the wardens of our faculties
And stewards of our labour, watchful men
And skillful in the usury of time
Sages, who in their prescience would control
All accidents, and to the very road which they have fashioned would confine us down
(Book Fifth, 376-384)
In Nature he finds a source of joy as much as of spiritual tuition:
Nor profitless, if haply they impressed
Collateral objects and appearances,
Albeit lifeless then, and doomed to sleep
Until maturer seasons called them forth
To impregnate and to elevate the mind.
(Book First, Introduction)
Nature is a true instructor:
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
Among the dwellings of mankind
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
Which nature breathes among the hills and groves
(Wordsworth, Book First, 282-285)
Nature holds up before the eye of youth
In her great school - with further view, perhaps
To enter early on her tender scheme
Of teaching comprehension with delight.
(Wordsworth, Book Third, 585-588)
By comparison, he thought academic studies wasted one's precious time with vain and petty pursuits.
Much of this criticism against schools would be found as well in Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools, by yet another poet (and another William), Cowper, whose works happened to be one of Alfred's favourite readings.
In Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth proposed a notion of boyhood as closer to the spiritual reality and still allowing communion with it through Nature - The Youth, who daily farther from the east/Must travel, still is Nature's Priest - but, like Cowper, he saw custom and social convention posed a threat to the child's spiritual integrity:
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
*Lole y Manuel. Una voz y una guitarra. Virgin. 1995
Introducing Cristina Newton
Alphabetical list of poems online