When publicly embarrassed by how poorly read I am, and especially so when being pressed by my family, I often claim to be rereading a book because ‘it’s so many years now since I first came across it’. In fact the plain truth is I haven’t got a clue about the book in question because I have never opened it.
There are some books, however, that I have read and reread and I am not finished with any of them yet. A few, all of them sublimely short, would be J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Paul Scott’s Staying On and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. (If you want some evidence of my staying power over a longer distance, I would point to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time: all twelve volumes, twice.)
The first thing that caught my eye on recently opening (or reopening) Silas Marner was the epigraph, from Wordsworth.
A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
The words not only caught my eye but held it. Old age, declining years, the gift of a child . . . how apt a quotation to place at the beginning of the tale of Silas and Eppie. But before I could even start to reread the novel, my mind was side-tracked from prose to poetry, from George Eliot to Wordsworth. At first I could not place the lines of poetry, and this annoyed me. After all, Wordsworth is a favourite writer. I should know. But it’s an age since I last taught his poem ‘Michael’ in the classroom. Over the years I think I rather lost confidence in teaching Wordsworth and felt – so much did he mean to me – unwilling to fight the good fight for modest plain lives, for simple childhoods, for old-fashioned stories in rural settings.
So it was high time I got my Collected Wordsworth down from the shelves.
‘Michael’, written in 1800, is 482 line
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