A colleague recently passed me this poem which I at first assumed was one of Eleanor Farjeon’s poems for children. Not so. I read it recently with a group in a care home for the elderly and we talked about it for nearly an hour, such was their interest and involvement. A mature speaker, perhaps an elderly speaker tells of an encounter with an old woman when they were only three. It seems that, as in the poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, nothing much happened: an old lady offered a child some fruit, but for the child the moment lodged itself in the depth of her memory. We all share this sort of experience; something ordinary, a morning at school, an afternoon playing outside for some reason separates itself from all the other ordinary or routine days and sticks in your mind forever. And in the poem, as the speaker talks, she begins, gradually to draw the listener closer and closer, at once wanting to convey the triviality and the momentous importance of this personal memory ‘you know’ at the same time as urging a universal recognition and sympathetic understanding of this act of remembering ‘you know’. The lines of the poem constantly spill over as the memory of the past is relived in the present and becomes more and more vivid as all the five senses are activated
As we get older, memories assume a greater and greater importance. My group loved and understood the fact that the speaker in the poem thought that remembering, and passing the memory on was so vital: ‘It wont mean much to you, it does to me. We all know that.
It was long ago
I’ll tell you, shall I, something I remember?
Something that still means a great deal to me.
It was long ago.
A dusty road in summer I remember,
A mountain, and an old house, and a tree
That stood, you know,
Behind the house. An old woman I remember
In a red shawl with a grey cat on her knee
Humming under a tree.
She seemed the oldest thing I can remember.
But then perhaps I was not more than three.
It was long ago.
I dragged on the dusty road, and I remember
How the old woman looked over the fence at me
And seemed to know
How it felt to be three, and called out, I remember
“Do you like bilberries and cream for tea?”
I went under the tree.
And while she hummed, and the cat purred, I remember
How she filled a saucer with berries and cream for me
So long ago.
Such berries and such cream as I remember
I never had seen before, and never see
Today, you know.
And that is almost all I can remember,
The house, the mountain, the gray cat on her knee,
Her red shawl, and the tree,
And the taste of the berries, the feel of the sun I remember,
And the smell of everything that used to be
So long ago,
Till the heat on the road outside again I remember
And how the long dusty road seemed to have for me
No end, you know.
That is the farthest thing I can remember.
It won’t mean much to you. It does to me.
Then I grew up, you see.
Eleanor Farjeon 1881-1965 is perhaps best known for the hymn Morning Has Broken for her children’s books many of which were illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and for her intense friendship with the poet Edward Thomas (see Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years)