April 12, 2016

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Source Poems: "The Land of Counterpane"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Our guest blogger for today's source poem is Maryland-based poet Pamela Murray Winters, an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Pamela Murray Winters
As with so many things in my life, I changed my “source poem” plans at the last minute.

I had intended to write about Deborah Digges’ incantatory “To a Milkweed,” a touchstone in my return to writing poetry in the past decade. Or maybe about “The Mower,” which shows the grim old Brit Philip Larkin as the softy we always suspected he’d be.

Then, after reading J. C. Elkin’s entry in this series on the mysterious dragon “Hannibal Clim,” I realized that I had to revisit Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane.”

I suspect that I first encountered what we call poetry in A Child’s Garden ofVerses, which my mother read to me. I am trying to hear her voice now, reading it, and I can’t. I should be sad, but at least it brings back the memory, and the concomitant gratitude, that she gave me the gift of reading. [AA: Stevenson's "The Swing," also from A Child's Garden of Verses, is the first poem I remember reading. Read more here.]

Looking closer, I realize that this poem is responsible for the best and the worst of who I am: it’s an integral part of my love of words, and it’s inextricably tied to my sloth. Regard the first stanza:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

Here I learned that one could lie a-bed, sick, and still be happy, a dangerous concept indeed if one is prone to fantasizing about being a Victorian lady of the thwarted intellectual persuasion, dropping posy-tied manuscripts and candied violets to the children at the window and courting suitors via sly essays in the local weekly.

What bliss (for the amateur invalid, not the truly suffering) to be bedridden! So many happy hours spent with a bowl of buttered white rice, a tankard of ginger ale, at least one cat, and a TiVo full of “Law & Order” reruns! To feel soft sheets against bare skin, to turn the pillow over to its cool side and bunch it up under that achy part of your neck…

I am sure that I tried playing with my toys in bed after first hearing this poem. I didn’t have soldiers, but there was that plastic barn with the farm animals smaller than a dime and the cunning little fences. I might have noticed for the first time how the gentle rolls of bedspread, arranged not by artifice but by the natural movement of my body, resembled hills.

Surely I relished the word “counterpane.” I never thought of it as the name of a country, but I valued its unfamiliar formality. Some words carry their oddnesses on their shoulders like the bindled vagabonds seen in stories (have you ever seen, in earthly life, a wanderer carrying a bundle on a stick?). The oddness matters more than the soul inhabiting the word. Words from my childhood I don’t hear anymore: davenport, Victrola, cursive, percolator. Each is a book in itself.

The poem bristles with action: soldiers (if I were workshopping this poem, I’d question the adjective “leaden”), sailors, even urban development. Amid it all, the sick child is the prime mover, a young god, a small person made giant by power and juxtaposition. Even when stilled by illness, the creator can rest and contemplate what he has made: “dale and plain / The pleasant land of counterpane.”

How many lessons on poetry are held in this one brief poem?

The Land of Counterpane
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane. 
R L Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
Image from The Guardian


Regina Sokas said...

I, too, was a Child's Garden of Verse kid. The first poem I memorized was GK Chesterton's The Donkey. Still gives me shivers.

Diane Mayr said...

I'm sorry to say, I never was exposed to A Child's Garden as I was growing up, but, I have found it as an adult and I love it!

Just Mary said...

Leaden soldiers -- I think the toy soldiers were commonly made from lead at the time, therefore a play on the word "leaden" as both still and unmoving and made from lead.

I had not read this poem since my children were, well, children. What a wonderful choice and your descriptions are packed with imagery and strong words as well. Thank you.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Definitely a pleasant notion, thoughI don't recall playing much in bed. There wasn't enough room with all the stuffed animals and two cats who slept there 24/7.

Linda B said...

I enjoyed your thoughts concerning the words included in the poem, how you enjoyed that they were different, rather elusive. For those who are early and avid readers, Stevenson fits very well.

Unknown said...

As Mary says, the soldiers were made of lead-the perfect substance for making children's toys! I too still have some memorable books from childhood. My fave is A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, which is inscribed to my mother by her parents in 1932 as a gift when she was six. It is falling apart, and I admit I have had a hand in that. When I teach a wish poem, I like to read one poem from it, The Island. "There's nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me." M