Quite early in the process of reading a bit of Housman’s (admittedly forlorn) poetry, I was interrupted by memory: a short dirt road, warmed by a sunny, unblemished sky, tall oaks on one side, fields on the other. The air sweet and thick. Cicadas chirring.
I couldn’t stop longing for the impossible, that sunny short road. From Rimbaud: “Ah! That life of my childhood, the high road in all weathers…”1
There is something between the bars of poetry, memoirs, pictures—a pattern lacking common description, a feeling thrown against the backdrop of life. It works your nerves. It is so often mentioned that it bears collecting: this deep, aching longing for the impossible. A place we cannot go or return.
In her most recent collection of poems and essays, “Upstream,” the ever-contemplative American poet Mary Oliver wrote that she longed “to be lost again, as long ago.” Her words, compelling but opaque, suggest a need for space. Oliver walked upstream—did she find what she sought? 2
English poet A.E. Housman, whose writing sparked my dirt roads, circled Cambridge University on daily walks. A preeminent classics professor in the early 20th century and a less-distinguished poet of longing (he carried a lifelong unrequited love for his heterosexual roommate), Housman took well-paced, lengthy steps marking boundaries where longing could exist.
In periods of acute feeling, such as after his love moved to India, when his longing spilled over into poetry. From “The Land of Lost Content”:3
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A place we cannot return to is also a place where we can never arrive.
This impossible longing is further embodied in Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” A woman (who feels achingly familiar)—dominated by the needs of children, family, husband, home, life—lives “in a state of mind she could not own.” She quietly, futilely, seeks space for existence. In a nondescript small hotel, she finds it: perfect nothingness, anonymity. Lessing won’t tell us what her character does in the room; so complete is the hide. Ultimately, however, as the title suggests, our heroine is ever traveling, never arriving. 4
Poet John Clare, who, like Housman, wrote without affectation, gazed on a place forever gone and recalled:5
Often did I stop to gaze
On each spot once dear to me
Known mong those rememberd days
Of banishd happy infancy
Often did I view the shade
Where once a nest my eyes did fill
And often markd the place I playd
At ‘roley poley’ down the hill
“The place we playd…”
The French capture this longing in pitch-perfect phase: Mal du pays. Homesickness, but more than homesickness, a deep longing for places embedded in time. Time is critical, time prevents us from returning. I stood on my road, even took a photo. But I will never return to the road as the child who first saw it. I will never return to the road I’ve kept in memory. That road simply doesn’t exist. The past—what Oliver beautifully termed “as it was long ago”—is no longer. 6
In her memoirs, novelist Penelope Lively faced the “as it was long ago” with bold honesty:7
It is gone, it cannot be recovered. It is swamped, drowned out by adult knowledge. That child self is an alien; I have still some glimmer of what she saw, but her mind is unreachable; I know too much, seventy years on.
Perhaps our burden is to long, yes, but not despair. We might not return or arrive at then and there, but we can always be now and here.