Now, when out of the house of your childhood you are departing,
Where you suffered, where you joyed, in the old confused childish way, not certainly distinguishing things,
Now suddenly, as you leave, how it all becomes clear, as in a kind of new and incomparable light!
This is the corner where your little bed stood against the wall, this the window where the moon peeped, and the white and ghostly dawn came;
These are the closed rooms and chests into which you were so seldom permitted to look; this was the daily routine of life which for some inscrutable reason was so rigidly adhered to;
These are the stairs where up and down moved such queer processions-funerals and weddings, and bustling visitors and elderly aunts and uncles, and the parson and the doctor in their turn;
And you were bade stand aside since you could not understand-
But now you understand it all.
Now, leaving it all,
The window truly for you will never stand open again, nor the sweet night-air through it blow-never again for you on the little coverlet of your bed will the moonlight fall;
And yet mayhap for the first time will the wind really blow and the moonlight fall,
For the first time shall you really see the face of your father whom you used to meet so often on the stairs.
All the spaces and corners of the house, and the swinging of the doors, and the tones and voices of those behind them, shall be full of meanings which were hidden from you while you dwelt among them.
Nor shall they ever leave you.
Never so long as yourself lasts shall you forget your mother smoothing out the pillow under your head, last thing at night, and kissing you as you slept;
Nay, every year so long as you live shall you understand that act better-shall you come closer in reality to her whom as a child you saw but through a glass darkly.
Leaving and again leaving, and ever leaving go of the surfaces of objects,
So taking the heart of them with us,
This is the law.
The beauty of a certain scene in Nature,
The beauty, the incomparable beauty of the face and presence of the loved one;
The sweetness of pleasure-of food, of music, of exercise, or of rest and sleep;
All these are good to obtain and to hold;
Yet (when the need arises) to be able to dispense with them-that is indeed to hold and to realise them even more deeply.
When at last Death comes, then all of Life shall be to us as the house of our childhood-
For the first time we shall really possess it.
But who is ready to die to life now, he even now possesses it.
Paul Marshall's Comments on the Poem
Edward Carpenter registered on my consciousness in 1994 when I was reading some early twentieth-century authors on mysticism - Maurice Bucke, William James, Evelyn Underhill and the like. My attention was caught by a chapter in Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness about a fellow called Carpenter whom Bucke rated very highly, going so far as to place him, along with Walt Whitman, in the company of such luminaries as the Buddha and Jesus Christ. I followed up the lead and discovered not only an insightful and strangely overlooked mystical thinker but also a multi-faceted activist who managed to combine contemplative inwardness with social engagement. At this time, I happened upon the little green edition of Carpenter's Towards Democracy in a second-hand bookshop and so came to read his poetry. The mysticism that suffuses the collection is perhaps most plainly expressed in the fourth and final part, ‘Who Shall Command the Heart', published in 1902, which contains one of my favourite Carpenter poems, the moving and profound ‘Out of the House of Childhood'.
Edward Lewis thought it one of Carpenter's finest poems. Henry Salt, no uncritical admirer of the sage of Millthorpe, wrote that it was his masterpiece, 'a marvel of deep feeling worthily expressed'. There is indeed real depth of feeling in the poem, with its simple, tender, haunting evocation of a childhood long gone and seemingly out of reach, ghostly like the moonlight or the white dawn at the child's bedroom window. No doubt the poem incorporates Carpenter's memories of his own childhood in Brighton, at the house in Brunswick Square where Carpenter never truly felt at home. Here the sensitive boy grew up, out of frame with the place and its society, and, it would seem, emotionally distanced to some extent from his parents. Only when the house of childhood has been left behind are the father and mother known more deeply, ‘for the first time', a phrase that resounds through the poem (compare with T. S. Eliot's 'and know the place for the first time' in his own meditation on time and redemption in The Four Quartets).
The transition from childhood disconnection, exclusion and incomprehension to adult insight and appreciation is then made emblematic of the general truth announced at the beginning of the poem: 'To take by leaving, to hold by letting go'. What exactly does this paradoxical expression mean? There is certainly more to it than the sad truism that things are never properly appreciated until they are gone. Rather, to leave behind is to possess in a deeper way than before - to shed the superficial or outworn, to absorb the essence, and thus to grow. It is a recurrent theme in Carpenter's writings, to be found in his call for a simplification of life by discarding the unnecessary wrappings and clutter of civilization, and it is central to his understanding of the growth and expression of the self, evident even in biological transformation. Evolution is 'exfoliation', which is 'nothing but a continual unclothing of Nature', with redundant layers cast off to allow the new to emerge.
At the poem's conclusion, the terminal event of death is presented as the ultimate exfoliant, promising entry into life's meaning and its true possession. And yet in a final twist, realization now in this life, at this very moment, is offered as a possibility. Although 'Out of the House of Childhood' is a poem with a message, it is not heavy-handedly didactic, and part of its attraction lies in its unwillingness to spell out its message, inviting readers to ponder the meaning for themselves. And so the poem ends as it began, in enigmatic paradox: 'But who is ready to die to life now, he even now possesses it.'
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Paul Marshall is an independent scholar with research interests in the philosophy and psychology of religion, the philosophy of the mind, and the study of science and religion. His publications include the book Mystical Encounters with the Natural World, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press, in which he makes considerable reference to Carpenter.
Paul is a member of the Edward Carpenter Forum. He lives in Leeds, U.K..