Poets come to those who wait
If my computer doesn't instantly obey my every whim, I get upset. If a recorded message says, "Please hold and you will be answered shortly. Thank you for your patience," I mutter, "What patience?" Beginning drivers who hesitate jerkily at green lights sorely test my charitable status quo.Skip to next paragraph
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I am but a child of my impatient time, I suppose.
Queuing makes me fractious. It did so, at least, one day last week at my Glasgow bank - for half an hour!
But I hadn't reckoned with Mr. Milton. As is typical, he showed up completely uninvited. I find poets tend to do this kind of thing in unguarded moments.
He said: "They also serve who only stand and wait."
"Thanks, John," I said, "but while I do see the unfortunate aptness of your remark, I am not sure how it helps."
"Think on it," he thundered in his portentous 17th-century tones and vanished monumentally in slow motion. I remained unconvinced as another 15 minutes went by before, at last, I managed to get my check deposited.
But poets are insistent. Later that week, with a little help from such friends, I discovered something else about waiting.
I was going to meet, for the first time, Mary Fedden, an artist I had long admired. She lives and works by the River Thames.
I had chosen the earliest London flight of the day, to be sure I got there in plenty of time. The flight was not delayed and the Underground journey afterward was surprisingly quick. That meant I had three hours to spare - to wait!
Ms. Fedden lives at Durham Wharf. I knew approximately where it was. But precision was needed.
So here I was, now on foot, ready to find Durham Wharf.
After a circuitous route through the back streets of Chiswick I was, finally, at the Thames-side footpath.
I turned left. The full river, wide here, swam past. Not at all like the urban Thames of Westminster, at this stage it is poised between city and country.
It all seemed fresh and energizing, and I was suddenly very glad I had so much free time ... at which moment - naturally - another poet made his entrance and said:
Sweet Thames! Run softly, till I end my song.
It was Edmund Spenser, no less, confirming the enchantment I was starting to feel. He went on:
Calm was the day, and through the trembling air,
Sweet-breathing Zephyrus did softly play....
Amazingly these old, 16th-century words of mellifluous romance seemed perfectly in tune that 2006 morning. And like the "I" of the poem, I, too, had started to walk forth "along the shore of silver-streaming Thames...."
Having said his say, Edmund wispily floated away on a dawn-bright cloud.
Ahead of me I could see landing stages. I assumed that one of these must be Durham Wharf. I felt uncannily alert, the way you do sometimes when you have been awake most of the night waiting for the alarm clock to go off, worried you might sleep deeply through it. I wanted this walk.
Rowers were out practicing over by the other bank, commanded by megaphones. On this side, sea gulls and cormorants posed on timber posts. Ducks chased one another and meandered in the shallows.
An Indian man walking a large, white boxer-type dog approached. Did he know Durham Wharf? I asked. He didn't. We chatted about his dog, who liked strangers to scratch her ears. A trusting nature.
On I walked. Not many people were around. I caught up with a woman and her small dog. They looked local. But she shook her head at my question about Durham Wharf. Her accent, I concluded, might have originated somewhere in Southern Europe. Eager to help, she made an observation stunning in its indisputability. "It's either that way," she said, pointing upriver, "or that way" - pointing downriver.
I agreed completely, thanked her, and continued on my way.
After an hour, I came to Hammersmith Bridge. It came low over the path; I had to duck under it. By now the riverside pubs, gardens, and small landing stages had given way to warehouses, and I began to suspect that Durham Wharf was not this way at all.
I was right. Durham Wharf - not, as it turned out, a "wharf" at all, but simply a studio and home at the river's edge - was actually about 100 yards to the right of the place at which I had originally turned left. It took another hour to reach it.
But on my way back, my gaze across the river was suddenly caught by a heron. These water-edge birds are not particularly rare. Nor are they as shy of humans as their solitary habits might suggest.
This one, at any rate, took not the slightest notice of me. It was unblinkingly still, an avian pillar of salt. I leaned over the low wall and watched it. Neither of us was in the slightest hurry.
And then - blow me down! - yet another poet rudely intruded. It was, as it would be, William H. Davies. And the point he wanted to make was this:
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
And this time, the poet stayed. I think he rather liked the heron.