In 1991, when I was 20, I spent 6 weeks in London on a study abroad trip and another couple weeks taking a Eurail train throughout Europe. As an angsty, small-town girl, everything I saw expanded my world. As I wandered through streets where history beckoned at almost every door and an eclectic mix of residents and tourists strolled the streets, packed the stairs of the London Underground (the Tube) and otherwise went about their day, I felt I was part of something bigger. Winding through backroads on a rickety bus during day trips, listening to the Cure on my Walkman, taking in the pastoral beauty, every moment was one to discover. There were possibilities. London is a metropolis that pulsates with energy and vibrancy, but is also full of smaller, quieter moments that hum beneath the noise.
I loved the Tube. I had never been on anything like it. “Mind the gap” still makes me smile. The world underground was a respite from the noise and heat and smog and smells. It was a journey to somewhere, anywhere new.
One of the things I love about the British, besides their accent and history and the royal family, is their literature. More specifically, their appreciation of it. I soon discovered on the Tube that summer that travelers were treated to poetry posted within the rectangles normally used for advertisements. The Poetry Society’s program Poems on the Underground was started in 1986 to bring poetry to a wider audience. What a British concept (at least in my mind)! I found it so beautiful and un-American to feature poetry prominently where people of every class and ethnicity who rode public transportation could be inspired.
These poems has stayed with me for decades. In reading them, I felt as if the poet was speaking to me. I felt understood.
“The Embankment (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)” by T.E. Hulme
“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small the old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.”
Keep in mind my favorite English word at the time was melancholia and my favorite French word was malheureusement (unfortunately).
Another that captured what it meant to be in a traveler, whose glimpses of pasture and lake and ancient architecture may be fleeting, was this one by A. E. Housman.
“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows.
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what barns are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”