Friday, October 6, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

Excerpt from ‘Young Gerard’, in MARTIN PIPPIN IN THE APPLE ORCHARD

He kicked at the dying log on the hearth, and sent a fountain of sparks up the chimney, The child threw a dry leaf and saw it shrivel, and Young Gerard stirred the white ash and blew up the embers, and held a fan of bracken to them, till the fire ran up its veins like life in the veins of a man, and the frond that had already lived and died became a gleaming spirit, and then it too fell in ashes among the ash. Then Young Gerard took a handful of twigs and branches, and began to build upon the ash a castle of many sorts of wood, and the child helped him, laying hazel on his beech and fir upon his oak; and often before their turret was quite reared a spark would catch at the dry fringes on the fir, or the brown oak-leaves, and one twig or another would vanish from the castle. 
    ‘How quickly the wood burns,’ said the child.
    ‘That’s the lovely part of it,’ said Young Gerard, ‘the fire is always changing and doing different things with it.’ 
    And they watched the fire together, and smelled its smoke,  that had as many smells as there were sorts of wood. Sometimes it was like roast coffee, and sometimes like roast chestnuts, and sometimes like incense. And they saw the lichen on old stumps crinkle into golden ferns, or fire run up a dead tail of creeper in a red S, and vanish in mid-air like an Indian boy climbing a rope, or crawl right through the middle of a birch-twig, making hieroglyphics that glowed and faded between the grey scales of the bark. And then suddenly it caught the whole scaffolding of their castle, and blazed up through the fir and oak and spiny thorns and dead leaves, and the bits of old bark all over blue-grey-green rot, and the young sprigs almost budding, and hissing with sap. And for one moment they saw all the skeleton and soul of the castle without its body, before it fell in.

– Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)

As I said a couple of weeks ago, my own post on Eleanor Farjeon inspired me to re-read this lovely book – not for the first time. I’m loving it as much as ever.

It was first written in 1922, and is a series of stories within a story.

This passage had me remembering the wood fires of my childhood, before we all had electric heaters, let alone the variety of sophisticated methods available to us now.

We would tell stories around the fire of an evening, or play word games. Sometimes we would toast bread on long toasting-forks made of twisted wire. Sometimes we would roast chestnuts.

I loved to gaze into the fire just as the two in this story did, seeing the many magical sights in the flames and sparks, the coal and ash.

Although this is prose, I think it is such excellent prose that it blurs the boundaries between prose and poetry, and has much to teach any writer.

Above all, I wanted to share it because it delights me. I hope you enjoy it too.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older writings may be out of copyright). The cover illustration I have used here shows same cover that my first copy had.


  1. Thank you for sharing! Yes, this is such excellent prose, and we have much to learn from it. we view fire with equal amounts of comfort and dread, but my memorable encounter with it, as a child , was curiosity. Playing with matches, the flame that flared was a beast that was alive, and quickly died out. i was glad i didn't burn down the house. :)

    1. Dsnake - good to see you again!

    2. Ha ha, my late husband Andrew told me that when he was very young he nearly did burn down the house! It was bad enough for the fire brigade to be called. I think many little kids have that fascination with matches.

    3. Thank you, Mary. :)
      i hope to be back writing again. right now, at the workplace, i am involved in a major project that is taking up a lot of my energy.

  2. I adore the beautiful descriptions in this excerpt.....visually lovely, one can see exactly what is being described. I especially loved the bones of the "castle" falling in on itself. I LOVE wood fires and miss them very much. Thanks for this, Rosemary. It is a delight to read.

  3. This is beautiful, Rosemary! Indeed there is poetry within the prose. I love the scene, thinking of the fire. Enjoyed that 'the fire is always changing and doing different things with it.' So true. The excerpt and your comment made me think about childhood. We never had a wood fire. My childhood home was heated by a coal furnace, and I can still remember when the coal truck pulled up and put coal down the coal chute to the basement. Bygone more coal furnaces anywhere...but nice memories. The closest experience I had with watching a fire was watching flames around a campfire when I was an adult tent camping with others and sitting around telling stories as the flames danced. There IS something about fire -- and about the stories in old books. A delightful share, Rosemary.

    1. Oh yes, I have experienced those campfires as an adult too. They are also magical!

  4. Thank you Rosemary. I enjoyed reading this and appreciate your acceptance of the blurry demarcation between poetry and good prose. They can both be hypnotic.

  5. Thank you for this (and for your memories as well)! My son has cleared an area in the woods by our house and put in a fire pit. Sitting in the woods watching the flames is a peace that passes understanding!

  6. Delighted you're all enjoying! (I think it might be hard not to. *Smile*.)

    Oh dear, just found – and hastily corrected – one typo that got through. It is of course 'lichen on old stumps', not 'stamps'.

  7. This passage is magical and you're right it does 'blur the boundaries between prose and poetry'. It reminds me of my childhood bonfire we used to watch the night before the festival of Holi ( festival of colors). The bonfire was named 'Narapora'. Perhaps it symbolized 'Holika Dahan' that is burning Holika the devil. These days we don't see it.

  8. Brings back memories of outdoor fireplace fires when I saw whole stories play out as the kindling and wood burned.

  9. Thank you for this lovely share, Rosemary ... beautiful writing ... it awakened memories of that warm and cozy tucked-in-for-the night pleasance of childhood. In my case, it was 'Just Mary' bedtime stories (read to me by my Mother). The joy to be found in wonderful writing ... simply expressed ~ sigh ~ oh, what a feeling. Smiles.

  10. even the book title is poetic - thanks for sharing, Rosemary. Poets need prose!


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