O to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
(Home-thoughts, from Abroad)
O to be in England …
Sometimes, when Time permits moments of quiet recollection amidst the breathlessly frenetic flow of daily life, I find myself sharing Robert Browning’s sentimental yearning for his native land. I, too, am an Englishman, and I, too, am in exile. A happy exile, perhaps, but an exile nonetheless. And although America has been good to me, and my American friends a veritable delight, the heart still, occasionally, leaps across the Atlantic to the familiar things of home.
Browning, of course, wrote of England from the warmth of Florence in Italy, whereas I write from the heat of Naples, Florida. Needless to say, the gulf between Naples FL and its Italian namesake is immense, wider than the Atlantic itself, and I will confess, as a European, that my preference is decidedly in favour of the aging Italian original rather than its youthfully usurping US counterpart. In making the comparison I am tempted to descend to the level of Browningesque pastiche, verging on pitiful parody, by employing the sort of convoluted rhyme and verbal frivolity for which Browning was famous, or perhaps infamous:
The poet in exile writes wistfully, though happily,
From a place called Naples that will never be Napoli.
Browning was not, however, merely writing from a very different place than the present author but also from a very different time. Much has changed in England in the century and a half since his wistful words were written. The elm-trees, once such a facet of the English countryside, have been decimated by Dutch elm disease, and the orchards, which caused the English landscape to blush with blossom, have been obliterated by the European Union and its disastrous agricultural policy. Much has changed but much remains. The chaffinch still sings and is the most beautiful of birds. Its subtle half-toned hue, highlighted with flecks of primary splendour, shows the master-stroke of its Creator’s genius. The very sight of such a bird causes the heart to leap with unexpected joy and, as such, the creature is a channel of the Creator’s grace. Of American birds, the cardinal has this effect upon me, but this resplendent rose fades beside the more homely beauty of the chaffinch. The former causes us to gaze in awed wonder at its magnificence while the more modest beauty of the latter overcomes such pomp with the power of pure simplicity. The former takes our breath away, the latter enables us to catch our breath. The former reminds us of exotic faraway places, the latter brings to mind the comfortable and the familiar. Great beauty takes us to great places but only the homely leads us home. Thus the magnificent bows before the magnanimous, much as Heaven bows before the Magnificat.
These thoughts of home have taken me on a flight of fancy beyond myself, and I find myself waxing more eloquently than I had intended. I have quite literally got carried away. I trust the reader will forgive me. The foregoing, for all its effusiveness, was meant merely to serve as an evocation of the desire for Home. Such desire is, of course, as close to home for Americans as it is to this Englishman abroad. And speaking of ‘broads’ … my wife, who is American though with an Irish mother, quipped that as a woman and as a homebuilder she is better qualified to write an essay entitled ‘Home Thoughts from a Broad’ than am I. Perhaps so. She certainly enjoys, or is afflicted by, the same penchant for puns as is her husband.
Enough digressions. These ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ come from the mind and heart of an Englishman who loves his native land and is distressed at the way in which his homeland is sinking in the swamp of secular fundamentalism. He is equally distressed by the prospect that the swamp of secularism might itself be sinking beneath the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism that has penetrated to England’s darkened heart. His own heart is broken by these evils, and he repeats the words of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet: “A plague a’ both houses!” My England is not the England of the Modern or the Muslim; it is the England of Shakespeare, Chaucer and St Thomas More. Its spirit is encapsulated by William Blake, in the immortal lines of his poem ‘Jerusalem’, a poem which, set to rousing music, has been justly adopted as the unofficial English national anthem. It serves as a fitting conclusion to my musings on Home, a knell of defiance against the massed hordes of modernity.
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.