Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.
I go so far as to think you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
to do with you what spring does with cherry trees.
- Pablo Neruda, Every Day You Play
I don’t profess to know a lot about poetry, but Pablo Neruda and the poem above, of which I have given you the opening and closing verses, are quite likely my favourite poet and poem. From the first time I read Every Day You Play I knew it almost by heart, and the opening verse periodically runs through my mind at unbidden moments.
(Of course, so does “Seven hearts the journey make / Seven ways the hearts will break. / Bravest heart will carry on / When sleep is death and hope is gone”, but somehow I don’t think Rowan of Rin is in quite the same league as dear old Pablo*.)
So why am I putting this poem** on my blog? Maybe in the hopes it might stop running through my head so much if I do; maybe because I’d love for other people to read it in its entirety; maybe because this year was the first time Valentine’s Day made me sad; maybe simply because I went to see Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love and thought I could justify the connection.
And yet when it comes to it, I find myself a bit lost as to how to discuss the play. It’s heart-rending and it’s hilarious; it’s about unrequited love and it’s about classical scholarship and the value of learning for learning’s sake; it’s about the corruption of manuscripts passed through antiquity and it’s about death; it’s about old men glorifying, as the play states, “the Golden Age”, and it’s about young men who both do and don’t want to live in that age; it’s about the poet A.E. Housman and it’s about Oscar Wilde; and it’s about life in general and it’s about Oxford in particular***.
The Invention of Love is a long play, but a rewarding one. I was personally thrilled to discover that many of its conversations centre on the Roman poet Catullus, whom I discovered as a teenager but have not often heard other people mention (outside of year 12 Ancient History, when I was similarly excited to already know of whom the teacher spoke). As the play mentions, Catullus is thought to have invented the love poem as it’s known today – so you should go look him up too, along with Pablo Neruda…
As you can see, I’m not really covering much of the play. Yet there are some brilliant ruminations on life, love, and learning in it, from Housman’s poignant, repeated statement that “I would have died for you, but I never got the chance” to Moses’ hilariously-conveyed musing that “Kissing girls is not like science, nor is it like sport. It is the third thing when you thought there were only two…”
And for me, currently mired in my to-PhD-or-not-to-PhD panic, the following struck close (again, from Housman): “Scholarship… [is] where we’re nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for its own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it’s for the faint-hearted, an elaboration of the real thing”.
For those of you who’ve made it through this post, which is admittedly more for my own pondering and peace of mind than anything else, I can only hope that it comes close to Housman’s ideal of such useless knowledge, bringing us to our humanness.
* I can also recite Aragorn’s poem from The Lord of the Rings. And the second verse of the Australian National Anthem. My talents are, as they say, boundless.
** Neruda also wrote a variety of odes to delicious things, such as his Ode to Tomatoes, Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground, and Ode to an Artichoke. These, and others, can be found here.
*** Personal gripe: I could not believe my ears at intermission when several Oxford university boys sitting behind me said, first, “This play could only do well in Oxford”, then “Yes, I think you have to know Oxford to appreciate it” and, lastly, I kid you not this is a direct quote oh my lordy pie, “I agree, regular people wouldn’t find this funny”. If I hadn’t been rendered speechless by the tone of pomposity with which these words were uttered, I would have turned around and gone all Crocodile Dundee on their collective behind.