A strange little childhood memory about Percy Bysshe Shelley and me.
It was 1990 or so. I lived in Moscow and studied in the fifth or six grade in a special school with deepened learning of English, which means that English is taught from the second grade, almost every day, and by good teachers. In case it isn’t clear, it’s very good.
The English teacher asked everyone to choose an English poem, to learn it by heart and to recite it in class. I didn’t quite know what to choose, and my parents suggested I phone a relative who knew English well. He suggested Summer And Winter by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
It was a bright and cheerful afternoon,
Towards the end of the sunny month of June,
When the north wind congregates in crowds
The floating mountains of the silver clouds
From the horizon—and the stainless sky
Opens beyond them like eternity.
All things rejoiced beneath the sun; the weeds,
The river, and the cornfields, and the reeds;
The willow leaves that glanced in the light breeze,
And the firm foliage of the larger trees.
It was a winter such as when birds die
In the deep forests; and the fishes lie
Stiffened in the translucent ice, which makes
Even the mud and slime of the warm lakes
A wrinkled clod as hard as brick; and when,
Among their children, comfortable men
Gather about great fires, and yet feel cold:
Alas, then, for the homeless beggar old!
If it looks very difficult and bleak for a ten year old elementary schools student, then it’s because it is, indeed, difficult and bleak.
I don’t remember how exactly did he get the poem’s text to me. He lived in another neighborhood of Moscow, quite far away. It was 1990, so he didn’t email it, of course. He didn’t photocopy it, either. I remember that it was handwritten. Maybe he sent it as a letter or maybe my parents met him and he gave it to them after manually copying from a book.
I don’t have the slightest idea why did that relative choose this poem. He spoke to me on the phone and explained all the difficult words, but he didn’t explain what’s special about it. Is it famous? Does he love it dearly for some personal reason? Does it have a relevant social message? Maybe—just maybe—we were supposed to choose something related to seasons or weather?
A day later I showed this to my English teacher and she was shocked by the difficulty and offered something much simpler. I don’t remember what it was, but I followed her advice. I did, however, remembered the last line with “alas”, and “beggar old”.
I’d love to speak to this relative some day and ask him what was he thinking.