In “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Jack writes about his first deep experience of poetry: “I had come to my hometown, Port Chester, New York, in 1943. When I left in 1958 I understood myself to be a poet. My essay, ‘Home/Words,’ in Exiles (1996) deals with the moment in 1955 at which I discovered poetry. Someone—probably a teacher, perhaps Angela Kelley, who was Italian but who had married an Irishman—suggested that I read Thomas Gray’s 18th-Century poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.’ I have no idea why the teacher thought the poem would appeal to me. I thought it very unlikely that I would have much interest in it, but I looked it up in the library and took it home. At that time—though I was not interested in poetry as such—I had been deeply affected by the ‘poetic prose’ of Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I’m sure that the word ‘homeward’ in the third line of Gray’s opening quatrain had something to do with my response. The poem seemed to me the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. It affected me so deeply that I wanted it to have come out of me, not out of Thomas Gray, and I immediately sat down and wrote my own Gray’s ‘Elegy,’ in the same stanzaic form and with the same rhyme scheme as the original.”
Today’s show is a tribute to Gray’s poem, completed in 1750, first published in 1751. Jack reads the poem and reads the poem he wrote in direct response to it. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (1819) was also a deep early influence on Jack’s work, so he reads that as well. He remarks, “What wonderful lines Gray wrote; what wonderful lines Shelley wrote. And the poems point in such different directions. Gray: Accept things with compassion and sympathy: you’ll die, everyone dies: ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave.’ Shelley: Do not accept things; transform them with your words. ‘Be thou me, impetuous one,” he prays to the West Wind,
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’”
This is the opening of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.