Who is that child I see wandering …?
I have just finished Matthew Hollis’ book about Edward Thomas, ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’. I have mixed feelings about it but, if one of the characteristics of a good book is that it lingers and poses further questions, it certainly has that.
One of the many intriguing aspects of Edward Thomas is how, in his many non-fiction books about travelling in the countryside, he describes meeting and talking to a stranger. Later, when he started writing poetry, he wrote explicitly about The Other. This stranger is, of course, himself and perhaps there is some connection between this splitting of different elements of himself, and his ambivalence to so many aspects of his life. When he first started sending out poems, he chose to do so under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway. We can only guess at the reasons but it seems consistent with his idea of the Other. He was unsure of what kind of a response he hoped for and Matthew Hollis describes how ‘To be both thin-skinned and not caring a button was a tightrope that Thomas would find difficulty in walking’. (This kind of sentence is not untypical of Hollis’ style.) To be wanting recognition and at the same time, anonymity is typically human.
I often do exercises in groups in which we invent and name personae, creating characters that embody aspects of ourselves, perhaps as shadows or as lives we might like to have lived. In Writing Works, there is a chapter called ‘Different Masks’ which offers writing techniques for engaging with different aspects of ourselves. These include Claire Williamson’s suggestion for meeting the writer part of the self, Reinekke Lengelle on the shadow and River Wolton on working with the inner critic, all analogous to Edward Thomas describing his meetings with a stranger.
As well as being multi-dimensional and contradictory in the present, we carry within us all our past and future selves – potential, realised or possible. I’ve recently moved back, after 30 years, to the area where I grew up which has led to me reflecting about who I was as a child and teenager. Ted Hughes, in a moving letter to his son, describes the necessity of acknowledging the child inside the armour of the adult person.
‘And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was.’
The rest of the letter can be read here. Ted Hughes considers it vital to engage with the child within. A more equivocal, poetic take on the idea comes from Charles Causley.
Who is that child I see wandering, wandering
Down by the side of the quivering stream?
Why does he seem not to hear, though I call to him?
Where does he come from, and what is his name?
Why do I see him at sunrise and sunset
Taking, in old-fashioned clothes, the same track?
Why, when he walks, does he cast not a shadow
Though the sun rises and falls at his back?
Why does the dust lie so thick on the hedgerow
By the great field where a horse pulls the plough?
Why do I see only meadows, where houses
Stand in a line by the riverside now?
Why does he move like a wraith by the water,
Soft as the thistledown on the breeze blown?
When I draw near him so that I may hear him,
Why does he say that his name is my own?
Collected Poems 1951-2000, London, Picador, 2000
Who is she, my thirteen year old self, shopping in Canterbury, walking through the woods in Brabourne Lees? Why does she say that her name is my own?