Monday, 25 February 2013

The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

A Prudent Wanderlust & Gratefulness for the Joys of Home

'The Wind in the Willows' is a very wise book. From the outset, it requires a suspension of disbelief: 
"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring- cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
Although all its main protagonists are animals, it is fundamentally a human tale imbued with the spirit of Nature. Its original frontispiece was a depiction of a pipe-playing Pan in the waking dawn. Curiously, it was originally entitled 'The Wind in the Reeds', but this was so similar to a book of poems by W.B. Yeats: 'The Wind among the Reeds' (1899) that only days before publication, the title was changed. What a good choice indeed! 

The first poem in 'The Wind among the Reeds' by Yeats expresses a yearning for nature and adventure which recurs throughout all the writings of Kenneth Grahame. In 'The Romance of the Road', Grahame writes, 
"There is a certain supernal, a deific, state of mind which may indeed be experienced in a minor degree, by any one, in the siesta part of a Turkish bath. But this particular golden glow of the faculties is only felt at its fulness after severe and prolonged exertion in the open air.
This yearning is expressed also in his essay 'A Bohemian in Exile'. Here is the aforementioned poem by Yeats, called 'The Hosting of the Sidhe'. The Sidhe (shee) are a race of fairy beings in Celtic mythology.

The Hosting of the Sidhe (W. B. Yeats)
THE HOST is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are a-gleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Almost all the characters of 'The Wind in the Willows' experience a moment of crisis, and must go through a process of finding themselves through forgiveness, friendship and a re-awakening of joy in familiar comforts.
Mole overturns Rat's boat, then later gets lost in the Wild Wood, reflecting afterwards on his own limits. Rat too is temporarily enchanted by the sweet words of his fellow wandering-rat. And then there is Toad, helplessly caught in his obsession for motor-cars: "poop-poop". The persistent exhortation is one of prudence in our wanderlust, and gratefulness for the joys of home. Even for the wandering-rat, it is the simple pleasures of food and company that bless his freedom, and make him feel at home in his wandering.

What energizes and inspires life? For Toad, it is the latest means of transport, here today, somewhere else tomorrow, "travel, change, interest, excitement". This desire turns out to be unskilful and gets him into all kinds of trouble. For the Rat, the river is the "only thing", and "there's nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats". Along with his love for his friends, poetry and an organised life, these are all skilful desires. They keep him happy and reinforce each other in his moment of crisis to ward off the dream of the wandering life that tempts him.

Unfortunately for Toad, the sheer will of his friends cannot save him. Like the archetypal Fool, he must journey over the brink of the abyss. Imprisoned, he is forced to pause and reflect, to think:
"new and inspiring thoughts: of chivalry, and poetry, and deeds still to be done; of broad meadows, and cattle browsing in them, raked by sun and wind; of kitchen-gardens, and straight herb-borders, and warm snap-dragon beset by bees; and of the comforting clink of dishes set down on the table at Toad Hall... and lastly, he thought of his own great cleverness and resource, and all that he was capable of if he only gave his great mind to it; and the cure was almost complete."
Isolation from unskilful desire only provides a temporary respite. Prison, whether by gentle friends or punishing foes, is not a solution. What is the healing balm for the never-ending wheel of desire and self-obsession? It is the inner sense of being loved, the inner self-confidence that is the ground of groundlessness and humility. When Toad at the end of the book finally has all the attention he could wish for, he no longer desires it!
The Everlasting Voices (W. B. Yeats)

O SWEET everlasting Voices be still;
Go to the guards of the heavenly fold
And bid them wander obeying your will
Flame under flame, till Time be no more;
Have you not heard that our hearts are old,
That you call in birds, in wind on the hill,
In shaken boughs, in tide on the shore?
O sweet everlasting Voices be still.

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