My grandmother was fond of reciting poetry to me when I visited her as a child. This was not something she did at appointed times, or at all in a formal manner, but casually, almost as to herself, and peripatetically, as I followed her about the house and assisted her in making beds, cleaning the canary's cage, or baking in her sunny kitchen.
"Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,"
she would recite as she cracked an egg smartly on the edge of the brown-banded crockery bowl:
"Do noble things, not dream them, all day long!"
There followed a pause, as she needed all her breath for a brisk beating of the batter. With that accomplished, she would continue more meditatively, tipping the bowl and letting the batter pour slowly into the cake pan:
"And so make Life, Death, and that vast forever, One grand, sweet song."
I would watch the batter fall into folds and spread into the corners of the pan, only half hearing the conclusion of the poem, but urgently awaiting the moment when, after one or two scrapes of the spoon for form's sake, Grandmother would turn the bowl over to me. I would still be scraping and licking as the kitchen began to fill with the spicy-sweet fragrance of Snickerdoodle.
All that was delightful in my visits to my grandmother became associated with her poetry. I did not mind that most of it had a strong hortatory cast. She was not indifferent to its other attributes; she liked a brisk meter and a tidy rhyme scheme, but these were mere handmaids to the thought, or as she undoubtedly would have called it, the message. This was the chief thing of all: figurative language appeared sparingly, and never for its own sake. A sound metaphor, however, carefully prepared for, was admissable as a reinforcement of the thought.
Thus life was presented as a strenuous journey across oceans, mountains or barren plains, or it might be conceived as a battle, a bivouac, or forge. In any case the poet was apt to speak in his own person toward the close of the poem and express his gratitude to its subject, making sure that no part of the analogy would be missed. Thus Longfellow addresses the village blacksmith:
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed or thought.
And in similar vein Oliver Wendell Holmes addresses the chambered nautilus:
"Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea ..."
Duty, stern daughter of the voice of God, was the muse of my grandmother's favorite poets, yet Grandmother herself was far from stern. Although I sensed that she meant these poems to be in part at least for my moral guidance, I felt too that this motive was secondary to her pleasure in sharing what she genuinely enjoyed. For her there was a positive exhilaration in reminding herself each morning:
"Lo, here hath been dawning
Another blue day!
Think! Wilt thou let it
Slip useless away?
"Out of eternity
a new day is born,
at night doth return."
I doubt whether Grandmother had read any of Meredith, to possibly have been given pause before his:
"Ah what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!-"
Her certainties were clear and consistent, and she passed them on to me without any accompanying gloss. Did I demur at a chore assigned to me, she quoted Emerson's The Mountain and the Squirrel; did I question that the purpose of our weekly call on cross old Mrs. Mielke, I was reminded of Longfellow's The Arrow and the Song; and if I sulked at some childish disappointment I was admonished:
"Be still, sad heart, and cease repining
Behind the clouds the sun is shining.
Thy fate is the common fate of all -
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary."
All the poetry my grandmother knew was, I suppose, learned at school and from the wonderful McGuffey Readers. When, at sixteen she began her married life, the canon was presumably closed. She never explored, or even wandered by chance into realms of gold, or was even aware of the major poetry of her time. Yet, enclosed as the little plot now appears which she cultivated so assiduously, it served to nourish a generous spirit all her life.