“A Little Girl rocking a cradle” by Nicolaes Maes – a pleasing 17th century Dutch interior. Photo: THE NATIONAL GALLERY

The Seven Ages of Man: “The infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”

It was almost a year ago now that I wrote the first article “Mirror, Mirror” on the magnificent poem of Stephen Spender “The Truly Great”, reflecting on those doctors and nurses who put their lives on the line in the fight against the virus.

In so doing, I stumbled upon the reassurance that poetry can give in these difficult times. I continued through the year following the seasons of England and Canada and the States, through their poets, by and large choosing poems I had loved throughout my life.

Seeking that same intangible quality of reassurance, entering the next lockdown, I now set out on a more challenging journey, to find a series of poems and paintings that may illustrate Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man”. The poems will be there; the challenge is to find them!

I have chosen Yeats’ poem to his new-born daughter (we shall return to him later in the series, I am sure) and that part of Kahlil Gibran “The Prophet” which speaks of children and parenting.

Both will tell, in very different ways, of that amazing feeling of anticipation and expectation which childhood brings, to parents, to grandparents and the world at large at the sight of a new-born baby. They are abstract concepts, but ones on which poetry can shine a particularly illuminating light.

W. B. Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” is a long poem written in 1919. It is profound and should be read in full. It touches on many other themes, besides his daughter’s birth (the fight for Irish nationalism, and his rejection in marriage by Maud Gonne in 1916). However, central to this article, it is a declaration of all that he wishes for his daughter; what she will look like, what she will achieve, how she will marry.

He has been criticised that it is unduly male-oriented, distinctly chauvinistic. He wants her “chiefly learned”, “may she be granted beauty and yet not beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught”. He sees her as “a flourishing hidden tree”, or living “like some green laurel rooted in one dear perpetual place”.

As I write about these verses, a space probe from the UAE will enter Mars’ orbit. Eighty percent of the scientific work to make this possible has been done by women; times change, expectations change.

Just 100 years separate Yeats’ wishes for his daughter and the technicians of the Martian flight!

The other poem (collected in a book of 27 prose poems) was written in 1923 just four years later, but it could have been written from a different world. In fact, of course it was!

Kahlil Gibran was taken from Syria, that part that is now the Lebanon, as an immigrant by his mother to the United States in 1895. His family started in penury in Boston, but he was gifted and befriended by many maecenas, first as an artist and then as a writer.

Over a period of time, he became the key figure in the Arab romantic movement, in fact transforming Arabic literature for western readers. Public fame came with the publication of this series of writings in his masterpiece “The Prophet”.

He wrote in a lyrical, distinctly spiritual format on the great themes of human existence, amongst which were love, marriage, children and of course death.

Read the excellent article in the Poetry Foundation on him to understand the ingredients that were to go into his poetry.

Whilst “The Prophet” speaks before boarding a ship to leave his native land, the style and cadences are almost those of the “Sermon on the Mount”. They are words of a teacher, a philosopher and a sage.

Of interest to us is what he has to say to parents about their children. “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself”. “Though they are with you yet they belong not to you”. “You may give them your love, but not your thoughts”.

Just four years separate the writings of Yeats and Kahlil, but they have entirely different outlooks. One, old school, hoping, inter alia, for the daughter to meet Eartha Kitts “Old fashioned millionaire”, the other to salute the enterprise of the UAE female scientists!

My favourite line, of consolation it has to be said, for those finding it difficult to let go is, “for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves the bow that is stable”! We may revisit Gibran’s “The Prophet” on other occasions during this journey.

Matching a painting to the theme of infancy had my jettisoning “mewling and puking” for obvious reasons, and I chose a watching elder sister to a nursemaid’s arms. This led to a warm and intimate picture at the National Gallery by Nicolaes Maes, a Dutch painter of the 17th century, who trained in Rembrandt’s studio when he came to Amsterdam. It is called “A Little Girl rocking a cradle”, painted about 1650.

He specialised in Dutch interiors and here the cradle takes centre stage; watched over by the elder sister. One cannot look at it without feeling the love to which I have referred earlier. Whether one views the child with the eye of Yeats or Khalil, that is properly in the eye of the beholder.

Do, if you are so inclined, find time to read Yeats’ poem on the internet, together with the commentaries and likewise other chapters of “The Prophet” if you have not read them before.

One of the paradoxes of being human is to be aware of a future, to have the gift even of procreation of those who will inherit that future, yet to be unable collectively to marshal the wherewithal to protect that future as we should.

These are deep and troubled waters indeed. To be enthusiastic for the child’s development should encompass, one would have thought, a care for the world in which it will live. Alas, this is not the case for most people, in most corners of the globe.

A Prayer for my Daughter (abridged)
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack – and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1921)

On Children
Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
From The Prophet (Knopf, 1923)

By Anthony Slingsby