The Child on the Cliffs

Mother, the root of this little yellow flower
Among the stones has the taste of quinine.
Things are strange to-day on the cliff. The sun shines so bright,
And the grasshopper works at his sewing-machine
So hard. Here’s one on my hand, mother, look;
I lie so still. There’s one on your book.

But I have something to tell more strange. So leave
Your book to the grasshopper, mother dear,—
Like a green knight in a dazzling market-place,—
And listen now. Can you hear what I heart
Far out? Now and then the foam there curls
And stretches a white arm out like a girl’s.

Fishes and gulls ring no bells. There cannot be
A chapel or church between here and Devon,
With fishes or gulls ringing its bell,—hark!—
Somewhere under the sea or up in heaven.
“It’s the bell, my son, out in the bay
On the buoy. It does sound sweet to-day.”

Sweeter I never heard, mother, no, not in all Wales.
I should like to be lying under that foam,
Dead, but able to hear the sound of the bell,
And certain that you would often come
And rest, listening happily.
I should be happy if that could be.

Edward Thomas

If the title of today’s poem sounds a little ominous, well, it is. But not all that ominous – the child doesn’t give in to the irrational desire to jump. Talking about irrational desires though, there’s a few things I want to get off my chest before we talk about this lovely poem by Edward Thomas.

First, this connection between cliffs and jumping off them – you made it too, right? When we go to high cliffs of the kind we see in this poem, part of us thinks, how beautiful, but the other part thinks, what would it be like to jump off, or almost thinks, you know what, I’d like to give that a try – not because I’m feeling suicidal or whatever, just because, you know, it might be fun, even with the certain pain, and probable death – it’s an irrational impulse after all.

As a child – even as a teenager – I felt this impulse more keenly. To jump off a bridge, just for kicks, or in front of an oncoming train (never a bus though, or lorry). These weren’t morbid obsessions, of course, just fleeting, irrational thoughts. A friend of mine confessed to me once that when unemployed and wandering local parks, he would see a mother pushing a pram, and have the strange irrational impulse to stamp his foot into it. Not out of any desire to inflict pain, just… for no reason whatsoever. What can we make of such impulses? Are they junk of consciousness, misdirected, not quite sublimated instincts barging into our otherwise ordered thoughts?

And what relationship do these irrational impulses bear to those other excess functions of consciousness- our imagination and our capacity to appreciate beauty? That question, finally, brings us to the poem, a short dramatic monologue which involves all three.

It starts with a strange flower that tastes of quinine – that’s the substance that gives tonic water its flavour. After tasting the flower the boy seems to notice a lot of things – strange things- he hasn’t before. I wondered if this were an intoxicating flower, and thus responsible for the altered perceptions of the boy. Then I thought, after all, the root of his altered perception lies elsewhere, and his noticing of the taste of the flower is just the first in a series of perceptions, and isn’t necessarily responsible for them. We can at least say that it initiates his strange thoughts, and this is significant: for Thomas always tied thought to perception of nature…

I like that grasshopper. It’s cute and it’s meant to be. It ‘works at his sewing machine’, it is like a ‘green knight in a dazzling market place’: this imagery is childlike, showing the boy’s imagination is still partly in childhood, with its fairy stories and anthropomorphic animals. Partly in childhood, I say, but not wholly, as there are stirrings of stranger thoughts, that the boy himself doesn’t quite understand. What’s next? ‘the foam there curls / And stretches a white arm out like a girl’s’. Quite a sensuous image that – the boy’s childlike world is stirring with the beginning of romantic longing here, as well as, the beginning of an aesthetic appreciation of nature.

The boy has called his mother’s attention to these things because he feels they are strange and significant, but the main thing he wanted to tell her about was the bell he hears. Again the child’s queries are phrased childishly – ‘fish and gulls ring no bells’, he says, but then they take an unexpectedly morbid turn. Although if you know Edward Thomas’s poetry, you would have half-expected death to get a mention somewhere. And, actually, to the child, these thoughts aren’t morbid at all – he is unselfconsciously expressing his love for his mother, and his wish to be happily dead – though he doesn’t quite know what it means.

I thought this an interesting contrast to the last poem we looked at, Eliot’s Animula. Both deal with childhood, in some degree, and the growth of the young towards adulthood – ‘the heavy burden of the growing soul’. But while Eliot looks at the whole of a life, Thomas focuses, characteristically, on a single, significant moment. Thomas’s poetry lacks the religious overtones of Eliot’s, but for both the human soul – or consciousness – is an unavoidably complex, troubling thing. Eliot’s poem was, beneath the beauty, didactic – he had a point to make about life and death, and our attitude towards it. In Thomas’s poem there is no lesson – it simply shows us the beauty and strangeness of life, and death too, of course… He is, in his way, just as heavy as Eliot.

***

This was the last in a series of posts about Eliot poems and some comparable poems from other poets. First time visitors to the blog might be interested in these previous posts – on Conversation Galante, All Night Under the Moon, What the Thunder Said ( from The Wasteland), BriggFlatts part II, Hadrian’s short poem and Animula.

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4 Comments

Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “The Child on the Cliffs

  1. I like Edward Thomas: unflashy; sterling quality; more going on behind the scenes than is apparent when the curtain goes up.

  2. I agree. He’s one of my favourite poets – maybe the favourite. Certainly first choice to take on a trip to the sticks or the coast.

  3. John has put it beautifully, and I agree.
    Also, I enjoyed your discussion of those irrational impulses. For a time, in childhood, I scared myself with the urge to jump into the teeming falls of the Androscoggin river every time I crossed the high bridge that spanned it.
    As an adult, whenever I jump off a cliff—in dreams–I seem to glide slowly down and land gently and smoothly, on my feet. Go figure.

  4. Thanks for adding your own anecdote about irrational impulses. I knew I wasn’t alone…

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