“There is nothing more wonderful than a book. It may be a message to us from the dead, from human souls we never saw who lived perhaps thousands of miles away, and yet these little sheets of paper speak to us, arouse us, teach us, open our hearts and in turn open their hearts to us like brothers.”
Kingsley is one of the writers whose words, by virtue of being in the primary school textbooks are among my earliest memories in life. This short poem which I studied as a six or seven year old, came back to me in college when I was asked to recite something impromptu. I still remember that day fifteen years ago, the bracing morning air in that Ooty garden, where we sat in a circle. Most of us were eighteen years old. It was early April and spring made the surroundings too seem to be as young as we all felt on that day. Yet I felt a strange twinge of melancholy as I recited,
“When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green ;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen ;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away ;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.
When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown ;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down ;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among :
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.”
From The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
Recently I read The Water Babies and realised why the lines had been layered with sadness. For this poem is sung when the young chimney sweep Tom drowns in the river, thereby turning into a water baby. The song is an elegy that an old woman sings over his grave, “only the body of it: the soul of the song was the dear old woman’s sweet face, and sweet voice, and the sweet old air to which she sang; and that, alas! one cannot put on paper.” In spite of the implied fantasy of afterlife underwater, this was one sad fairy tale. The novel addresses the need for cleanliness – both physical as well as spiritual and takes a satirical look at class differences, child labour, and morality. The website interesting literature mentions how Kingsley coined the words “cuddly’ (in The Water-Babies) and ‘unrealistic’ (in a letter of 1865).
It was interesting to read that his novel Westward Ho! had been critiqued as being racist. When I read it as a child, it had come across as just another adventure story. But that might have been because my mindset as a child had been moulded by the books that I read during the time, which was to look at novels through the eyes of a young white man in the nineteenth century.
Certain authors permeate the reader’s consciousness, their books putting down roots in the reader’s mind to form strong, enduring influences. Then there are others whose words gently reach out to readers across time and space, like ripples across a lake which surface once in a while. To me, Charles Kingsley is of the second kind.