The dearness of common things –
Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves,
And the whole family of crockery –
Wood-axes, blades, helves.
Ivory milk, earth’s coffee,
The white face of books
And the touch, feel, smell of paper –
Latin’s lovely looks.
Earth fine to handle;
The touch of clouds,
When the imagining arm leaps out to caress
Grey worsted or wool clouds.
Wool, rope, cloth, old pipes
Gone, warped in service;
And the one herb of tobacco,
The herb of grace, the censer weed,
Of whorled, blue, finger-traced curves.
A great deal of human happiness comes from the kind of “Common Things” that Gurney details here. With all due respect to Buddhists, I’m in no hurry to give up my attachments to earthly things any day before the final curtain. I don’t mean that in a materialistic, greedy, I want loads of stuff kind of a way, just in a more healthy (I think) sort of fondness for the sight and feel of familiar things: a little red kettle, a worn old pair of trainers (so much better than new ones), a brown leather watch I don’t quite feel right going out without. It’s an essential part of being human, this attachment to objects – one of my young son’s first milestones was the smile of joy and recognition that started to appear at about two and a half months old, when I pulled out the first toy he formed an attachment to, the enigmatic Rattlebear.
Painting and photography are the most natural of mediums to embody our appreciation of everyday objects, in particular still life. The Dutch are known for their great attention to the mundane, but they’re kind of gross and realistic for my tastes – you can almost smell the sickly food and fusty wood, and it ain’t pretty. If there’s an artist whose still lifes exude the same sense of familiarity and pleasure as Gurney’s poem, it is those of Cezanne (see above); not as realistic as all that perhaps, but very likeable, making of the inanimate something sympathetic.
A painter is limited to a single scene of course, and I suppose that is why some will pile up incongruous objects together – ‘What’s that bone pipe doing lying across my clams and what on earth are you doing with those lobsters and pomegranates?’ But a poet can range far and wide in the space of a few stanzas, through all the familiar things he and his readers might hold dear. Gurney starts in the kitchen, a very still life kind of place to start, then moves to the tool shed – this feels very much like my granddad’s shed, with well-worn familiar tools. Is there a more manly, DIY-related rhyme in the English language than ‘shelves /helves’? This is definitely one for our Big Book of Real Men’s Poetry, John.
Like many smokers and coffee-fiends, Gurney’s not much of a foodie: no pomegranates or lobsters for him, not so much as an apple, just a lovely cup of ‘ivory milk’ and ‘earth’s coffee’. That last is a very evocative image – evoking ground coffee in its soil-like guise before you pour hot water onto it and it bubbles and foams gorgeously. Mmmm, good Sunday morning poetry this… Gurney’s idea of the everyday spans the small, even the minute – ‘Latin’s lovely looks’ (and there’s that Hopkins-esque alliteration again) – and the grand, the ‘touch of clouds’ which is a common thing which is wholly imaginary, the imagined, fine combed wool feeling of clouds as he swishes his hand at them through the air.
The last stanza is a gem, and typifies the tendencies that make Gurney such an endearing poet. One final list of mundane items leads to ‘the sacred herb’ of tobacco, at which point he abandons the rhyme scheme and the list like nature of the poem altogether, as he traipsies off on a wee reverie about his favourite common thing at all. The poem ends with whorls of blue smoke, as if disappearing into the semi-darkness of the top of an oil painting. It is a strange and oddly sublime ending. As an ex-smoker, I can appreciate this perfectly. As evil as the stuff undoubtedly is (though Gurney wouldn’t have known this), there are few small pleasures quite as pleasurable as the feel and smell of tobacco as it is rolled into a cigarette or stuffed into a pipe. So much so that Gurney appears to forget what the poem is about as he gets religious – quite literally, using words like ‘grace’, ‘censer’ and ‘sacred’ – about his very favourite common thing.