oats & oaks in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 06/21/2022 - 02:23

In a little poem that Van makes Lucette (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) learn by heart the Poet Laureate Robert Brown mentions oats and oaks:


They tried all sorts of other tricks.

Once, for example, when Lucette had made of herself a particular nuisance, her nose running, her hand clutching at Van’s all the time, her whimpering attachment to his company turning into a veritable obsession, Van mustered all his persuasive skill, charm, eloquence, and said with conspiratory undertones: ‘Look, my dear. This brown book is one of my most treasured possessions. I had a special pocket made for it in my school jacket. Numberless fights have been fought over it with wicked boys who wanted to steal it. What we have here’ (turning the pages reverently) ‘is no less than a collection of the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language. This tiny one, for example, was composed in tears forty years ago by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown, the old gentleman whom my father once pointed out to me up in the air on a cliff under a cypress, looking down on the foaming turquoise surf near Nice, an unforgettable sight for all concerned. It is called "Peter and Margaret." Now you have, say’ (turning to Ada in solemn consultation), ‘forty minutes’ (‘Give her a full hour, she can’t even memorize Mironton, mirontaine’) — ‘all right, a full hour to learn these eight lines by heart. You and I’ (whispering) ‘are going to prove to your nasty arrogant sister that stupid little Lucette can do anything. If’ (lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips), ‘if, my sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada by not making one single slip — you must be careful about the "here-there" and the "this-that", and every other detail — if you can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for keeps.’ (‘Let her try the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain,’ said Ada drily — ‘it’s a bit harder.’) ‘No, no, she and I have already chosen that little ballad. All right. Now go in here’ (opening a door) ‘and don’t come out until I call you. Otherwise, you’ll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss all your life.’

‘Oh, Van, how lovely of you,’ said Lucette, slowly entering her room, with her bemused eyes scanning the fascinating flyleaf, his name on it, his bold flourish, and his own wonderful drawings in ink — a black aster (evolved from a blot), a doric column (disguising a more ribald design), a delicate leafless tree (as seen from a classroom window), and several profiles of boys (Cheshcat, Zogdog, Fancytart, and Ada-like Van himself).

Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, ‘just in case,’ wrote:

‘I kept for years — it must be in my Ardis nursery — the anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and upsetting crates, and voices calling, time to go, time to go. Find it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old intelligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now read on:


‘Here, said the guide, was the field,

There, he said, was the wood.

This is where Peter kneeled,

That’s where the Princess stood.


No, the visitor said,

You are the ghost, old guide.

Oats and oaks may be dead,

But she is by my side.’ (1.23)


Hopkins’s diaries and notebooks are filled with rigorous, exhaustive detail.  He recalls his numerous walks in nature: of the uniqueness of a leaf, the flesh-like quality of the sky “blushing” in its “turquoise-like” splendor. (At one point, he even free associates a connection between “oats” and “oaks” simply because the words sound so similar. He then proceeds to list every possible detail imaginable he can connect with these two things). Hopkins’s poem Pied Beauty brings to mind Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. According to Lucette, she does not want to be a pied cheat:


She returned after a brief swim to the sun terrace where Van lay and said:

‘You can’t imagine’ — (‘I can imagine anything,’ he insisted) — ‘you can imagine, okay, what oceans of lotions and streams of creams I am compelled to use — in the privacy of my balconies or in desolate sea caves — before I can exhibit myself to the elements. I always teeter on the tender border between sunburn and suntan — or between lobster and Obst as writes Herb, my beloved painter — I’m reading his diary published by his last duchess, it’s in three mixed languages and lovely, I’ll lend it to you. You see, darling, I’d consider myself a pied cheat if the small parts I conceal in public were not of the same color as those on show.’

‘You looked to me kind of sandy allover when you were inspected in 1892,’ said Van.

‘I’m a brand-new girl now,’ she whispered. ‘A happy new girl. Alone with you on an abandoned ship, with ten days at least till my next flow. I sent you a silly note to Kingston, just in case you didn’t turn up.’ (3.5)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Obst: Germ., fruit.


My Last Duchess is a poem by Robert Browning. The queer long coat of Browning’s Pied Piper is half of yellow and half of red:


Come in! — the Mayor cried, looking bigger:

And in did come the strangest figure!

His queer long coat from heel to head

Was half of yellow and half of red;

And he himself was tall and thin,

With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin,

And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin,

No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin,

But lips where smiles went out and in —

There was no guessing his kith and kin!

And nobody could enough admire

The tall man and his quaint attire:

Quoth one: It's as my great-grandsire,

Starting up at the Trump of Doom's tone,

Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!


Hopkins’s sonnet The Windhover ends in the word “gold-vermillion:”


I caught this morning morning's minion, king- 

  dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding 

  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding 

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing 

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding 

  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing! 


Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here 

  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion 

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, 

  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.


Hopkins's Windhover brings to mind an eagle-feather in Browning's Memorabilia (1855):


Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,

And did he stop and speak to you?

And did you speak to him again?

How strange it seems, and new!


But you were living before that,

And you are living after,

And the memory I started at—

My starting moves your laughter!


I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt,

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:


For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—

Well, I forget the rest.


In his sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’ Hopkins mentions dead letters:


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

   With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.


   I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

   Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.


Brown's poem that Lucette learns by heart is called "Peter and Margaret." In his poem Spring and Fall Hopkins addresses Margaret (and mentions ghost):


to a young child


Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.