One day during this dreary Virginia winter, I came across a talk by Susan Cooper, given at Simmons College in 1980. The talk was titled, “Nahum Tarune’s Book.” To explain the title, she begins by quoting an astonishing passage from the introduction of Come Hither by Walter de la Mare, an anthology of poetry first published in 1923:
In my rovings and ramblings as a boy I had often skirted the old stone house in the hollow. But my first clear remembrance of it is of a hot summer’s day. I had climbed to the crest of a hill and stood looking down on its grey walls and chimneys as if out of a dream. And as if out of a dream already familiar to me.
My real intention in setting out from home that morning had been to get to a place called East Dene. My mother had often spoken to me of East Dene — of its trees and waters and green pastures, and the rare birds and flowers to be found there. Ages ago, she told me an ancestor of our family had dwelt in this place.
Susan Cooper came to Come Hither when she was fourteen. She kept a copy of “this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year. It is my talisman, my haunting: a distillation of all the books to which I’ve responded most deeply …”
“I own a few de la Mare poetry collections—Songs of Childhood (1902) and Peacock Pie (1913). His work is mysterious and ethereal, earning him the mantle “poet of dusk.” Cooper hoped to capture de la Mare’s magic in her own work. (Her novel The Dark Is Rising won a Newbery Honor, and The Grey King was a Newbery Medalist — I’d say she’s done fairly well in the magic department.)
How fast did I order Come Hither? And when it came, this 800-page brick of a book, I leafed straight to the introduction, sinking deeply into the dreamy prose. Simon, the “rovings and ramblings” boy, describes the old stone house:
It was never the same for two hours together. I have seen it gathered close up in its hollow in the livid and coppery gloom of a storm; crouched like a hare in winter under a mask of snow; dark and silent beneath the changing sparkle of the stars; and like a palace out of an Arabian tale in the milky radiance of the moon. Thrae was the name inscribed on its gateway.
Simon meets the old lady of the house, Miss Taroone, who tells him of Sure Vine, which Simon believed was an ancestral mansion. The maid mentioned villages called Ten Laps, and how he might get to East Dene: through the quarry, by the pits, “and then you come to a Wall. And you climb over.” Then Simon hears of the boy Nahum Tarune. Exploring Nahum’s room in the stone tower, Simon is amazed by the fossils, rocks, nests, clocks, model ships, strange musical instruments, and a human skeleton. Bookcases cover the walls.
He digs out an old volume with Nahum’s hand-printed title: Theotherworlde. Inside, Nahum had copied poems — Shakespeare, Chaucer, Blake, Poe. Simon is not impressed. “‘Poetry!’ I would scoff to myself, and would shut up the covers of any such book with a kind of yawn inside me.” But then he begins to read.
I remember seeing Come Hither in my small elementary school library, the same edition I have now, printed in 1957 with decorations by Warren Chappell. Hungry for stories back then, I had no interest in poems. In high school, I grew slowly into poetry, falling hard for Frost, Sandburg, and, especially Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.
Soon Simon does what Nahum Tarune did so many years ago — he copies the poems he likes best. He visits Thrae many times, often staying late. Once Miss Taroone warns him to leave: “There’s a heavy dew tonight, and the owls are busy.” Then comes the inevitable day when Simon must go to school and leave Thrae for good. But he keeps his book of poetry.
Susan Cooper points out the random notes that Simon scatters between the poems like coins. Ben Jonson’s “The Witches’ Song” spurred four dense pages of notes on the folklore and old names of plants. The next time I pick cat mint, I’ll think “Robin-run-in-the-hedge” instead. The introduction acts as a frame story — Simon copying the poems Nahum copied which ultimately became the book Come Hither. Like poetry, the frame story can be read on many levels, the meaning never the same twice.
Simon doesn’t see Nahum because, as Cooper clarifies, “he is all of us.” Nahum Tarune is an anagram of human nature. Thrae is earth, Ten Laps are the planets, Sure Vine is the universe. Miss Taroone is probably Mother Nature. And East Dene? Destiny.
I could see why Cooper dipped into Come Hither “sometimes for solace, sometimes for sunshine.” This great collection of words that Simon learns to read “very slowly, so as fully and quietly to fill up the time allowed for each line and to listen to its music,” to see even common and familiar things differently from the actual object. That is the power of poetry. On our way to East Dene, poetry helps us climb over the Wall.
April is National Poetry Month. Teachers everywhere will be introducing children to the works of Valerie Worth, David McCord, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Nikki Grimes, and many others. I’ll be reading Spoon River Anthology for the first time since high school, while waiting for a spring night when the dew is heavy, and the owls are busy.