- Written by Roberta Rivett
The following are two versions of the same thing, written about ten years apart. The partial duplication is due to my incompetent system for filing my writing. The piece below was written in early 2018; the following draft was written much earlier. This may be due also to the nature of change as we age.
Grandma’s Notebook 2
In my 2017 entry entitled Poetry II, I noted that I had been working on making a book of my grandmother’s notebook. Now I want to reflect on how that little notebook affected my thinking about family, about writing family histories, and indeed, about poetry.
I knew my paternal grandmother well as a child. My parents and siblings and I lived in the Cottage across the garden from the Big House, where lived Grandma and Grandpa and their adult children, Aunt Elsie and Uncle Harry. Hired men came seasonally, sleeping in the bunkhouse and eating on alternate weeks at the Cottage or the Big House.
When I was nine, we left Valley Springs Ranch to live in the village of Borden. Then our contact with our grandparents was much less but they continued to be an influence, although more distantly. They both died in the early 1950s, she at 83 and he a couple of years later at 93. After that it was just memories.
After high school and nursing training my path took me to the East Coast, following my air force husband. Thereafter we remained in Ontario in cities until we retired in 1993 to Victoria. My sister Mary had lived near our parents in Victoria for many years before that, and inevitably she fell heir to many family treasures as our parents began the process of divesting themselves of THINGS. One of the treasures was a battered little notebook, the cover detached and the individual pages capable of being shuffled like a deck of cards. Clearly, it was in need of preservation, and failing to know how to preserve it physically I undertook to preserve its contents. My daughter transcribed most of the entries, and we ended up with a nice little book of the material which was important to my grandmother (her great-grandmother) in the ten years from age 16 to age 25 – teenager to young married woman with two of her future eight children born. We don’t know if she continued with this notebook habit thereafter; only the one notebook was preserved to be handed down. But it seems to me that thinking about what my grandmother thought was worth noting in her nicely legible handwriting might reflect her views, values and indeed character.
Among the entries was a very odd little poem, a clipping tipped in rather than transcribed. I think I had read the poem several times, trying to make sense of it, before I read the title! The poem is made up of single lines from a great many poems (that every Victorian child should know!) This explains the odd familiarity of the occasional line, such as “In days of Auld Lang Syne,” “And I will pledge with mine,” “The Walrus and the carpenter,” “Came peeping in at morn” and “Kind hearts are more than coronets.” And these give evidence of how far I fell short with respect to knowing the “poems every child should know.” Determined to root out ALL of the poems represented by each line, I turned to the Internet, which was remarkably helpful. After some thought, I included all or part of the original poems as appendices in the volume Martha Hinde’s Notebook. I include the footnote I prepared for the Nonsense Verses, at the beginning of Martha Hinde’s Notebook.
Grandma’s Notebook I
It is a great thing to have ancestors who in some way made a record of their lives. Collections of letters, journals and diaries, notebooks of favourite poetry, school projects lovingly saved by parents, memorabilia of all kinds. Photographs. These can supply entry points for exploring the lives of our forebears. Most to be treasured are the stories written by our ancestors, their autobiographies, because with such stories we know those ancestors intended their words to be read in the future.
I am particularly blessed with ancestors who left records – all manner of records – of their lives. My present project involves the transcription of a notebook compiled by my paternal grandmother, from 1884, when she was fifteen, a girl living with her family in Derbyshire, England, until 1894, when she was a young married woman with two children and expecting a third, living in a suburb of Birmingham, England. That notebook was filled; there may have been others, but they have not come to my hands as this one did, from my grandmother to her son my father, to his oldest child my sister, and lent to me. I was aware of this book as a child; in my early teens I copied out one of the poems from it, having been told by my father that his mother had used it in smoky Birmingham on the rare clear night to teach him the constellations and the principle stars. This teaching verse begins:
Where yonder radiant host adorn the northern evening sky,
Seven stars - a splendid waving train - first fix the wandering eye.
To deck Great Ursa’s shaggy form these brilliant orbs combine;
And where the first and second point, there see the North Pole shine.
There are 35 more verses; the language of the poem is Victorian but rhyme and scansion make it a verse possible to memorize – at least in the late Victorian era when memorization played a considerable role in education. The Internet offers one reference to this verse, in The Midnight Sky at London, first published in 1869; it too quotes the first two verses, however substituting Polaris for North Pole.
Picturing my grandmother pointing out the stars and constellations to the boy who was to be my father has set me to contemplating the mind of my grandmother, as revealed by her choice of the poetry she carefully copied into her notebook. Further, while reading her choices and looking them up on the Internet for date and history of the author and context, I have been compelled to think about the nature of the education she received in the late Victorian period in England in comparison to the education I received on the Saskatchewan prairies in the mid-20th Century.
Children now are not called upon to memorize as a central component of their basic education. Memorization was central to my Grandmother’s education, and was still in the education system half a century later and an ocean away in mine. The poetry she liked, and the poetry implicit in the “nonsense verse” on a clipping tipped into her notebook do, I think, give me a sense of her mind and how she saw the world, complete with Victorian sentimentality and Quaker sensibilities. I knew my grandmother in the flesh only to the extent a child and teenager can know a family elder. I know her now, as a family elder myself, through what she thought was beautiful and memorable, worthy of a place in her notebook.
My grandmother’s notebook was a lined “scribbler”, soft-covered, and by the time it came to my hands 115 years after the last entry, it had lost most of its staples and glue which had held it together. I took it apart (with my sister’s permission) and put each page into a sheet protector, enclosing the whole in a loose-leaf binder. When this project – transcribing my grandmother’s notebook to make it accessible to her descendants – arrived at the top of my project pile, I asked my daughter – who had offered to help with my projects – to transcribe the contents.
She found the process unexpectedly difficult: not the technicalities of typing from the notebook into the computer but the words themselves, and the attitudes, the paradigms, the values which the words represented. She found herself conflicted, thinking about the content of that notebook and what it represented about the life and times of her ancestor.
That set me to wondering why I didn’t share her experience. Perhaps it is because this not the first book I have assembled from the writings and memorabilia of my forebears. For her it was the first, and she was not prepared for the impact it had on her. Perhaps I am somewhat immunized. Certainly much of the poetry is unappealing to contemporary sensibilities, but I enjoyed the light it shone on the mental and emotional life of my grandmother as a young woman. But Allegra was not enjoying the task she had undertaken. I am always delighted to have assistance with my family history projects but helping me with them is supposed to be fun! She had almost finished the transcription; I took it back from her and completed it myself and then worked on the formatting and footnotes.
One of the items in that notebook was a clipping from a newspaper. It was utterly baffling. It rhymed and the lines scanned but the content seemed to be utter nonsense. I pondered its meaning for some time, finally clueing in to a line in one of the ten four-line verses: “The Walrus and the Carpenter…” Re-reading the poem, I thought I recognized a couple of other lines, and turned to the Internet for help. Looking up one line at a time, I found that my suspicion was correct – each of the forty lines is one found in a poem which would be available to a child in the late Victorian era, those same poems probably constituting a significant part of that child’s education.
Having made this discovery – which I take it any child in a literate household a century and a half ago would have made instantly – I decided to put into my book of my Grandmother’s notebook the text of the poems represented by the lines in the puzzle verse. Here is the poem. Including most of the suggested poems occupied about ninety pages of the finished book.
POEMS EVERY CHILD SHOULD KNOW
By Carolyn Wells
Strike! For your altars and your fires!
In days of Auld Lang Syne,
Whose flag has braved a thousand years
And I will pledge with mine.
When the drum beat at dead of night,
The consul’s speech was low:
“Shoot if you must this old gray head!”
On the reef of Norman’s Woe.
“Come forth! Come forth, ye cowards all!”
Oh say, what may it be?
“Lie there!” he cried! “Fell pirate, lie!”
A scornful laugh laughed he.
Alas, alas, my Cumberland~ -
But hark! That awful sound!
When coldness wraps this suffering clay
Like noises in a swound.
The walrus and the carpenter
Came peeping in at morn;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Was yellow, like ripe corn.
A wet sheet and a flowing sea;
The fevered dream is o’er.
I never loved a dear gazelle
Loved I not honor more.
Next morn the baron climbed the tower,
And smit with grief to view
The daughter of a hundred earls, -
The soldier’s last tattoo!
Earl March looked on his dying child,
Whence all but him had fled, -
Before Vespasian’s awful throne,
Behind the Tuscan’s head!
It is not along my inky cloak
All buttoned down before;
Kind hearts are more than coronets
That round my pathway roar.
The combat deepens. On, ye brave!
A-hunting of the snark;
The plume of Henry of Navarre
Was bit off by a shark!
It took me the better part of three weeks to track down all of the sources of the forty lines in this verse. I think it was worth it, in a salutary sort of way. I enjoy poetry greatly, so my ignorance of so many of the standard poems from the Victorian age and earlier came as a bit of a shock!