I didn’t think I’d be returning to writing about poetry quite so soon, but when reading Wives and Daughters (which I’m reading in serial with a group on goodreads), I found a reference to John Gilpin (Cowper’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin), which I was all set to revisit during the week and write about, since it is among the funniest poems I’ve read so far (though yes, I still haven’t read very many poems overall). But anyway with a busy week I never did get down to reading it (I hope to sooner than later and will write about it). But I also ended up remembering Kipling’s The Way Through the Woods which I first read some years ago as part of his book Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and also liked very much.

This beautiful (and haunting) poem takes me (or rather my thoughts) to two different things each time I read it. Kipling writes in it of a road that “They shut…Seventy years ago” which has been reclaimed by the woods, the weather, and the rain, where there are now “coppice and heath” and “thin anemones”, so

now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods.

Part of this poem paints this picture of nature becoming “free” again, to grow, to go about life with no fear—the ring-dove brooding, badgers rolling at ease, trout-ringed pools, and the otter, whistling to his mate, for:

“(They fear not men in the woods
Because they see so few)”

Man’s presence and influence more often than not spells trouble for nature, constraining it rather than allowing it to blossom, even to be, destroying it for “development”, or his own greed, or mere entertainment. So of course the description of a place free of man’s influence, his interference, which forms most of the first stanza and part of the second as well, leaves one with a sense of peace, of freedom, rejoicing in her joy, watching the badger roll, or listening to the otter whistle to its mate, none worried that someone might harm them.

The second stanza on the other hand, is rather haunting, for while one mightn’t know that there was once a road through the woods,

“Yet if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late…”

The shadows of the past are still there:

“You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through,
The misty solitudes,
As though they practically knew,
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods!”

One can’t see the road through the woods anymore but one can feel its presence—its memories and shadows remain, and perhaps the wood remembers where the road once was. It feels as through past and present are there at the same time. Yet these shadows, though uncanny, are not really frightening—they bring back memories, make one think of the days past, and perhaps also the thought that where man once was there is always a mark of some kind.

But one also can’t help but wonder when one is lost in this picture, whether it is that this is the only way that the two can coexist? Nature blooming, joyous, thriving, and at peace only in a place where there is no human presence―just shadows of what was―no longer anyone to disturb or destroy…

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2 thoughts on “Shadows of Days Past

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