I started school half a term late. My mother taught me to read in a primer, and two brothers read to me from their fourth- and sixth-grade readers.
I became familiar with stories of Sigurd and Roland and Beowulf. There were fairy tales and adventure stories with such varied characters as the dwarf Rumpelstiltskin and a little girl in Wonderland.
A poem from Tennyson's "The Princess," however, has proved more deeply lasting, since it reflects experiences of a happy childhood.
The origin of these experiences was an early morning when my brothers were preparing for their walk to school. One of them pulled from his satchel a reader and rehearsed a poem he had been assigned to recite in class.
Strangely, the first two lines struck me as mystical and haunting poetry: "The splendor falls on castle walls/ And snowy summits old in story." I was fascinated by the rhythm and imagery in the romantic setting.
The poem goes on. A bugle blowing caused echoes to fly about. I was not quite certain what echoes were, but a brother promised that when he returned from school he would take me to a place where I would hear eerie reflections of sound. That prospect and thoughts of the poem itself made my day one of great anticipation.
Our home faced an extensive pasture with a number of hills and a creek we preferred to call a brook. Into this pleasing wild greenness I followed my brothers after school let out. We paused on a hill that overlooked a valley. Beyond it, an old barn rested on another hill.
My elder brother proudly assumed control of the situation. Cupping hands around his mouth, he shouted, "Hello up there!" We waited a split second. Then a mysterious voice that seemed to come from another world repeated his words. It was an unnatural voice and more haunting than human speech.
Years passed, and I became a university student. In my sophomore year I was disappointed that my English professor dismissed Tennyson, saying the poet did not appeal to him. At the same time I was happily surprised by a gift from my brothers, an 1897 edition of "The Poetical Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson." They had found the rare volume in a secondhand bookstore. It is a hardback covered in golden oak cloth. Surrounding the title, stamped in gold, are entwining branches with red roses.
I turned to Eugene Parsons's introduction for a biographical sketch of the poet and found pleasure in certain revelations. For example, Tennyson was brought up "amid lovely idyllic scenes," where there were "haunts of tangled underwood and purling brooks." Even more than this was a note written on the flyleaf by one of my brothers, "See page 404," referring to the memorable poem from "The Princess."
*April is National Poetry Month.
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