“Didn’t we study a poem called ‘On Killing a Tree?'”, asked my brother. “It was written by Gieve Patel,” he added. We had just started our daily WhatsApp call and I mentioned to him that I had spent the better part of the morning cutting down a tree. My wife had been asking me for the last three years to cut the tree, but I have a bit of Dogmatix in me, I do not like to see trees cut. Dogmatix, of course, is Obelix’s dog from the “Asterix and Obelix” comic series and he does not like to see trees uprooted, especially by the Romans. But unlike Dogmatix, I am answerable to a higher authority and the tree was cut.
I remembered the poem vaguely. We did not have it for our “ICSE” (The Indian Certificate of Secondary Education). “ICSE” is the passing out exam that a section of Indian students write when they finish their 10th grade. My brother had written the exam in 1980, he was five years my senior in school. Amongst the various textbooks we used, we both remember with a certain amount of fondness and nostalgia our poetry textbook “Panorama – A Selection of Poems”.
“What were the other poems?” asked my brother. “Wasn’t there ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth?”. “Daffodils” was certainly in the textbook and I had read it but again it was not in our syllabus for the exam. That started a train of conversation that chugged merrily along for an enjoyable 30 minutes and brought back many fond memories.
My copy of the Panorama, as with many of my other text books, was a hand me down from my brother. He had used it for three years and when I started using it five years later, the cover had frayed and the pages were beginning to come loose. I used the cardboard cover of an old Lekhak notebook along with a strip of cloth and Fevicol to fashion a hardcover binding for the book and it was ready to go. Now my brother had taken notes down scrupulously and so the margins of each poem were annotated with explanations and meanings of words. These notes stood me in good stead when I started studying the poems. I used the book for three years starting in 8th grade and after that, it lay in our bookshelf at home for several years until it disappeared.
“There was ‘Abou Ben Adhem,'” I said. “Of course!” said my brother, “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase!”. “Didn’t we have the ‘Bazaars of Hyderabad’ by Sarojini Naidu?” Indeed, we did. We also had “The Bangle Sellers” by Sarojini Naidu. Panorama had several poems and the ICSE Board designated twenty poems for each batch or groups of batches and these had to be studied for our English Literature exam. It was just not poems, we had to study an unabridged play by Shakespeare (My batch had “The Merchant of Venice”), a collection of short stories called “Tales From Far and Near” and “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. The poems varied from batch to batch and while my brother and I had several poems in common, there were some that did not overlap. “How about ‘The River’ by Ramanujam?” I asked. He replied that they did not study it.
I remember studying “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning and “Lochinvar” by Sir Walter Scott in eighth grade. The cold war was still on and we tweaked the poem a bit to have Ronald Reagan courting Margaret Thatcher. I remember just the first two lines of our version:
“O young Ronald Reagan is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his ICBMS were the best”
Ballads were fairly easy to understand but the poems that followed in the ninth and tenth grade were more abstruse.
“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats had references to Greek mythology that I was unaware of. My brother’s annotations helped and so did our English teacher, Fr Coelho’s explanations. We had two poems bearing the same title: “To a Skylark” one by Wordsworth and the other by Shelley. These were not light reading and certainly not written in a language and style that I was familiar with.
Our conversation continued, each one of us remembering a poem and then digressing into some topic or incident related to the poem. Now my brother tends to remember most of what he has studied. While I remembered the names of poems and many of the poets, he practically remembered the name of every poet as well as the characters in the poems. After going through a few poems we reached an impasse and so I came indoors and picked up my copy of Panorama and started going down the list of poems. We had covered most of them. “‘After Blenheim’, by Southey,” I said. “Ah yes, Old Kaspar!” said my brother. “The Village Schoolmaster,” I said as I scanned through the list of poems. Pat came the response “Oliver Goldsmith!” And then what he said next shocked me:
“And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.”
I don’t know how he remembered those lines, he had studied the poem in 1979! But we are weird in our own little ways, some lines just stick to our minds.
A few years ago, I started looking for a copy of “Panorama” and was elated when I saw it available on the Amazon website in India. I picked up a copy and it now sits on my bookshelf here. My intention was to read through all the poems that had been taught to us but also the ones that weren’t. I was surprised to find that this edition did not have some of the poems that we had studied and seemed to be a pared-down version of what we had. Some notable poems missing from this edition are “The Bazaars of Hyderabad” by Sarojini Naidu, “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe and “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While I have briefly skimmed through the book, I have not read all the poems. I do bring it out though on the rare occasion when my high school classmates from out of town (or country) visit me. They thumb through the pages with a distant look in their eyes, reading out the names of the familiar poems aloud and exclaiming when they find a favorite one.
It’s spring here now in New England and Daffodils are popping up everywhere and each year, as I drive around, Wordsworth’s poem comes to mind. And like some Daffodils that pop up in the unlikeliest places, the words of some of the poems I studied pop up in my mind at the unlikeliest times. I was at a corporate training session about twenty years ago. The instructor explained some arcane policy and shrugged his shoulders and said:
“Ours not to reason why”
I replied instinctively:
“Ours but to do and die!”
He grinned and continued with the session. I don’t think anyone in the room got the context or if they did, they did not show it. My brother would tell you, “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson.
A few years ago, on a walking tour at the Boston Common, our group stopped at the Granary Burial Ground. After walking past the graves of several famous Bostonians, we stopped at the grave of Paul Revere. The guide was no fan of Paul Revere. He asked the crowd that included tourists from other countries if we remembered what the signal was. Ah yes, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I said softly:
“One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be”
The guide shook his head. “HW Longfellow was only trying to impress Paul Revere’s granddaughter,” he said, “that’s why he wrote the poem and embellished his role!”
As the name suggests, “Panorama” was a selection of poems spanning different themes such as nature, patriotism, ballads and historical characters. It was a good introduction to poetry but I doubt it inspired many of us to read poetry on our own. Reading a poem for its own sake is one thing, studying it for an exam just kills the joy of reading a poem. The poets we studied were understandably mostly English but there were famous Indian poets too like Sarojini Naidu, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Rabindranath Tagore and Nissim Ezekiel.
Some of the poems did leave their mark on me. Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “Night of the Scorpion” describes his mother’s painful ordeal when she is stung by a scorpion. After enduring the agony of the sting (as well as the various remedies) for twenty hours the pain finally subsides. The poem ends with the lines:
“My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.”
At that age, I could picture my mother saying that in a similar situation. And now, without a doubt, my wife. The other is “Where the mind is without fear” by Rabindranath Tagore. Many many years ago in a fit of inspiration (and perhaps a fleeting bout of homesickness), I printed that poem and laminated it by covering it with sellotape. I carry it with me in my wallet to this day, reading it once in a while. It is dogeared and scuffed but the verse is clear.
Kipling’s “If” is a poem that I wish we had studied in school. It could have replaced all the boring Moral Science lessons that we had to study. But I think it is just as well that I read it on my own accord without having to study it for an exam. Kipling was well represented though by his “The Ballad of East and West”. The opening lines are still fresh in my mind:
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;”
Now that I think of it, the ICSE Board probably achieved some of its objectives! There are probably a few people like me who still remember those poems and seek them out once in a while.
As I look back at my conversation with my brother, I wonder if it is the intrinsic qualities of the poems that we remember. We were too young to appreciate the meter, the figurative language, or the mood that the poets sought to convey when we studied the poem. Could it be perhaps, that these poems remind us of the time which we both acknowledge were amongst the most carefree days of our lives? A time that we spent together at home? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. We don’t talk fondly of Newton’s Laws of Motion, Coordinate Geometry, or the Bessemer Process. But I wouldn’t be surprised if my brother could speak at length on them and with relish. The memories that Panorama rekindled in me are wonderful, but having a brother, indeed a kindred spirit to share these with is priceless! As I turned in for the night, I flipped the pages of Panorama and read Gieve Patel’s “On Killing a Tree”.
It takes much time to kill a tree,
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it. It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out of it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water,
And out of its leperous hide
So hack and chop
But this alone won’t do it.
Not so much pain will do it.
The bleeding bark will heal
And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs,
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.
The root is to be pulled out –
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And pulled out-snapped out
Or pulled out entirely,
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.
Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
And then it is done.
I still don’t like cutting down trees.