Firstly, a recommendation for a great poetry radio show called Olivia Reads Books. In it, my dear friend Olivia reads poems and extracts from books she has selected on various themes. This week’s episode (the last!) is about youth/old age. I’m extremely grateful that she’s allowed me to read a couple of my poems in it – both about people nearing the ends of their lives. If you’d like to listen, click here. My bit is 15 minutes and 50 seconds into the episode from 07/06/2020, but I’d really recommend the whole episode and indeed the rest of the show – the extracts Olivia has chosen are beautiful, her comments on them insightful, and her tones soothing. Just the thing for a restless night or stressful day!
Here’s this week’s poem!
Nostalgia, by Carol Ann Duffy
Those early mercenaries, it made them ill –
leaving the mountains, leaving the high, fine air
to go down, down. What they got
was money, dull, crude coins clenched
in the teeth; strange food, the wrong taste,
stones in the belly; and the wrong sounds,
the wrong smells, the wrong light, every breath –
wrong. They had an ache here, Doctor,
they pined, wept, grown men. It was killing them.
It was given a name. Hearing tell of it,
there were those who stayed put, fearful
of a sweet pain in the heart; of how it hurt,
in that heavier air, to hear
the music of home – the sad pipes – summoning,
in the dwindling light of the plains,
a particular place – where maybe you met a girl,
or searched for a yellow ball in the long grass,
found it just as your mother called you in.
But the word was out. Some would never
fall in love had they not heard of love.
So the priest stood at the stile with his head
in his hands, crying at the workings of memory
through the colour of leaves, and the schoolteacher
opened a book to the scent of her youth, too late.
It was Spring when one returned, with his life
in a sack on his back, to find the same street
with the same sign over the inn, the same bell
chiming the hour on the clock, and everything changed.
‘Nostalgia’ is a word that comes from two ancient Greek ones: νόστος (a journey home, a homecoming) and ἄλγος (pain, grief). But it was only created by doctors in the seventeenth century, to describe the condition of Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. These soldiers had begun to experience strange symptoms the longer they stayed away. As historian Tiffany Watt Smith writes:
It began with the soldiers being distracted by thoughts of home – often brought on by hearing cowbells chiming in the distance. Then it would progress to lethargy and sadness, “frequent sighs” and “disturbed sleep.” Strange physical symptoms followed – lesions, heart palpitations, and from there a “stupidity of mind” – a kind of dementia. Some soldiers died of the illness, wasting away from a refusal to eat.
Nostalgia is today considered a normal human emotion, rather than an illness; most of us use the word with no knowledge of its medical antecedents. We are nostalgic for our young lives, whose sorrows have now beennow receded into triviality; for our first loves and friendships; perhaps for the easy movement and physical closeness of a few months ago, which now seem so distant. We have become familiar with nostalgia. This poem reminds, however, that nostalgia is a modern invention (though this is not to say it is any less real). In it, Duffy considers the birth and growth of nostalgia; how the creation of a language for emotions can create the emotions themselves (‘Some would never / fall in love had they not heard of love’). I’m reminded of a section from Nicole Krauss’ novel, The History of Love:
Feelings are not as old as time. Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed to sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt and a first time for sadness. For a while, new feelings were being invented all the time. […]
It’s also true that sometimes people felt things and, because there was no word for them, they went unmentioned. The oldest emotion in the world may be that of being moved, but to describe it – just to name it – must have been like trying to catch something invisible.
The final image in Duffy’s poem suggests that strange hollowness of nostalgia: though the soldier finally returns home, he finds ‘everything changed’. Perhaps the home he dreamt of was a fantasy; perhaps what he pined for was not in the place, but something else; perhaps it is he who has changed. For those of us spend too long buried in our pasts, it is an apt reminder of the futility of trying to recreate them – like trying to catch something invisible.
All my love,