“We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end.” ~ William Middleton
“… never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood.” ~ W. B. Yeats
There are some poems that you find yourself returning to again and again. “Childhood” by Richard Aldington is one of those poems for me. Certain memories and images, certain events, even certain lines and images from other poets and poems will suddenly bring this one to my mind. That is the way of great poetry. And this is certainly great in every sense of the word.
I first remember reading this poem as part of an anthology when I was about 15 or 16 years old. It may have been in a copy of Some Imagist Poets (which is now available for free many places, including here) or it may have been another anthology all together. What I do remember is that the volume was blue and old and it was in the library that was in the basement of the Broadwater County Courthouse. And I remember reading this poem and loving it.
As a poet, Aldington is classified as an “Imagist.” The term Imagist was originally coined by Ezra Pound to describe the kind of poetry both Aldington and his more famous wife, poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), were writing. The kind of poetry Pound himself was exploring. The credo of those who viewed them selves as Imagists is spelled out nicely in Some Imagist Poets:
- To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
- To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist on ‘free-verse’ as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
- To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
- To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It s for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of art.
- To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
- Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.
In “Childhood,” Aldington achieves what he sets out to do. There is certainly nothing “blurred” or “indefinite” about it. It is exactly what an Imagist poem is suppose to be. It is exactly what a poem is suppose to be.
Put me out of love with God.
I can’t believe in God’s goodness;
I can believe
In many avenging gods.
Most of all I believe
In gods of bitter dullness,
Cruel local gods
Who scared my childhood.
I’ve seen people put
A chrysalis in a match-box,
“To see,” they told me, “what sort of moth would come.”
But when it broke its shell
It slipped and stumbled and fell about its prison
And tried to climb to the light
For space to dry its wings. That’s how I was.
Somebody found my chrysalis
And shut it in a match-box.
My shrivelled wings were beaten,
Shed their colours in dusty scales
Before the box was opened
For the moth to fly.
I hate that town;
I hate the town I lived in when I was little;
I hate to think of it.
There wre always clouds, smoke, rain
In that dingly little valley.
It rained; it always rained.
I think I never saw the sun until I was nine —
And then it was too late;
Everything’s too late after the first seven years. The long street we lived in
Was duller than a drain
And nearly as dingy.
There were the big College
And the pseudo-Gothic town-hall.
There were the sordid provincial shops —
The grocer’s, and the shops for women,
The shop where I bought transfers,
And the piano and gramaphone shop
Where I used to stand
Staring at the huge shiny pianos and at the pictures
Of a white dog looking into a gramaphone. How dull and greasy and grey and sordid it was!
On wet days — it was always wet —
I used to kneel on a chair
And look at it from the window. The dirty yellow trams
Dragged noisily along
With a clatter of wheels and bells
And a humming of wires overhead.
They threw up the filthy rain-water from the hollow lines
And then the water ran back
Full of brownish foam bubbles. There was nothing else to see —
It was all so dull —
Except a few grey legs under shiny black umbrellas
Running along the grey shiny pavements;
Sometimes there was a waggon
Whose horses made a strange loud hollow sound
With their hoofs
Through the silent rain. And there was a grey museum
Full of dead birds and dead insects and dead animals
And a few relics of the Romans — dead also.
There was a sea-front,
A long asphalt walk with a bleak road beside it,
Three piers, a row of houses,
And a salt dirty smell from the little harbour. I was like a moth —
Like one of those grey Emperor moths
Which flutter through the vines at Capri.
And that damned little town was my match-box,
Against whose sides I beat and beat
Until my wings were torn and faded, and dingy
As that damned little town.
At school it was just as dull as that dull High Street.
The front was dull;
The High Street and the other street were dull —
And there was a public park, I remember,
And that was damned dull, too,
With its beds of geraniums no one was allowed to pick,
And its clipped lawns you weren’t allowed to walk on,
And the gold-fish pond you mustn’t paddle in,
And the gate made out of a whale’s jaw-bones,
And the swings, which were for “Board-School children,”
And its gravel paths. And on Sundays they rang the bells,
From Baptist and Evangelical and Catholic churches.
They had a Salvation Army.
I was taken to a High Church;
The parson’s name was Mowbray,
“Which is a good name but he thinks too much of it –”
That’s what I heard people say.
I took a little black book
To that cold, grey, damp, smelling church,
And I had to sit on a hard bench,
Wriggle off it to kneel down when they sang psalms
And wriggle off it to kneel down when they prayed,
And then there was nothing to do
Except to play trains with the hymn-books.
There was nothing to see,
Nothing to do,
Nothing to play with,
Except that in an empty room upstairs
There was a large tin box
Containing reproductions of the Magna Charta,
Of the Declaration of Independence
And of a letter from Raleigh after the Armada.
There were also several packets of stamps,
Yellow and blue Guatemala parrots,
Blue stags and red baboons and birds from Sarawak,
Indians and Men-of-war
From the United States,
And the green and red portraits
Of King Francobello
I don’t believe in God.
I do believe in avenging gods
Who plague us for sins we never sinned
But who avenge us.
That’s why I’ll never have a child,
Never shut up a chrysalis in a match-box
For the moth to spoil and crush its brght colours,
Beating its wings against the dingy prison-wall.