Guest poem submitted by Tamsin Bacchus:
(Poem #1877) Oxford Canal
When you have wearied of the valiant spires of this County Town, Of its wide white streets and glistening museums, and black monastic walls, Of its red motors and lumbering trams, and self-sufficient people, I will take you walking with me to a place you have not seen - Half town and half country - the land of the Canal. It is dearer to me than the antique town: I love it more than the rounded hills: Straightest, sublimest of rivers is the long Canal. I have observed great storms and trembled: I have wept for fear of the dark. But nothing makes me so afraid as the clear water of this idle canal on a summer's noon. Do you see the great telephone poles down in the water, how every wire is distinct? If a body fell into the canal it would rest entangled in those wires for ever, between earth and air. For the water is as deep as the stars are high. One day I was thinking how if a man fell from that lofty pole He would rush through the water toward me till his image was scattered by his splash, When suddenly a train rushed by: the brazen dome of the engine flashed: the long white carriages roared; The sun veiled himself for a moment, and the signals loomed in fog; A savage woman screamed at me from a barge: little children began to cry; The untidy landscape rose to life; a sawmill started; A cart rattled down to the wharf, and workmen clanged over the iron footbridge; A beautiful old man nodded from the first story window of a square red house, And a pretty girl came out to hang up clothes in a small delightful garden. O strange motion in the suburb of a county town: slow regular movement of the dance of death! Men and not phantoms are these that move in light. Forgotten they live, and forgotten die.
This poem always comes to mind when I look at still water. It's well ahead of its time (the very beginning of the 20th century) stylistically, and so was left out of the Victorian/Edwardian anthologies. Later anthologists do not seem to look beyond Flecker's few well-known poems. But a school friend and I used to walk along the canal on Sundays out from boarding school and so I have loved the poem from the moment I first read it. Revisiting it now, I have noticed the "black monastic walls" that obviously pre-date the massive clean up of the college buildings after centuries of grime. I also hadn't previously appreciated the description of a steam train rushing by -- only something I have recently experienced waiting for a change of train in Swindon when a steam special roared through. The preserved lines that chug through the British countryside do their best but they are mopeds to a Harley Davison when you see, feel and smell the real thing! Tamsin.