The spirits of children are remote and wise

Anybody who is, or has been, a parent of young children will recognize and empathise with the sentiments of today’s poem, ” Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents” by Frances Cornford. It nails the rollercoaster demands of children, whose imaginations seem to know no constraint, while we adults have to constantly adapt to keep up and react accordingly without damaging the child’s ability to use its fertile mind in any direction whatever.

Poem: “Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents,” by Frances Cornford.

Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents
The spirits of children are remote and wise,
They must go free
Like fishes in the sea
Or starlings in the skies,
Whilst you remain
The shore where casually they come again.
But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows, with silver bells;
Where heart-distracting magic birds are seen
And all the things a fairy-story tells;
Though still you should possess
Roots that go deep in ordinary earth,
And strong consoling bark
To love and to caress.
Last, when at dark
Safe on the pillow lies an up-gazing head
And drinking holy eyes
Are fixed on you,
When, from behind them, questions come to birth
On all the things that you have ever said
Of suns and snakes and parallelograms and flies,
And whether these are true,
Then for a while you’ll need to be no more
That sheltering shore
Or legendary tree in safety spread,
No, then you must put on
The robes of Solomon,
Or simply be
Sir Isaac Newton sitting on the bed

Whatever mode we are in as parents, we must tune in to the wants, needs, concerns, fears, questions, moods and wild imaginings of our children and act accordingly, without shutting off any possibility, “They must go free”. It is a hard ask, and most parents fall short, at least some of the time. The parent represents stability, reason, protection, reassurance, knowledge, wisdom, entertainment and everything else to the young child (I’m thinking this is about between the ages of 2 and 5, perhaps). This poem captures these roles beautifully, and leaves unsaid how hard it is to live up to them all the time.

We may consider there is added poignancy to this poem by the fact that we know the poet was the mother of John Cornford ( see blog post of October 16th), who was killed in the Spanish Civil War when he was 21. But this poem must date from well before that tragedy, I assume, so maybe the poignancy is misplaced. In any event, this poem has a resonance that goes far beyond any one circumstance, evoking a very widespread experience of parenthood.


The Poetry Dude


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