Yes, I am recycling – but there is a good reason aside from my love of this poem. Last Wednesday at the Wollongong City Diggers I had a most amazing conversation with B, a retired carpenter, in which this poem came up. It spoke to him too.
B and I were sitting here
James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976) is, as you may see from that article, still something of a Right culture hero — perhaps even more so these days. He was certainly charming to me when I met him at one of the first English Teachers Association conferences I ever went to as a young teacher. At that conference he read “Because” and I was totally and deeply moved, and at that level I don’t care a bit what political arguments may centre on him or derive from him: I just knew I had been privileged to hear a truly great poem spoken by the man who wrote it and even more had the opportunity shyly and awkwardly to ask him how on earth he did it. “9 parts perspiration and 1 part inspiration” was part of what he told me over that memorable cup of tea…
The poem has moved me ever since, and hardly a senior class I have had has escaped my enthusiastic teaching of it. Yes it is conservative in form. McAuley was no friend of modernism, but then neither was Robert Frost. When a poem is as good as this one I simply don’t care; after all it could have only been written in this society in my lifetime. In that sense it is thoroughly modern. But enough from me. Can anyone read this and not to be moved?
My father and my mother never quarrelled.
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove.
I never saw them casually touch,
Or show a moment’s joy in one another.
Why should this matter to me now so much?
I think it bore more hardly on my mother,
Who had more generous feelings to express.
My father had dammed up his Irish blood
Against all drinking praying fecklessness,
And stiffened into stone and creaking wood.
His lips would make a switching sound, as though
Spontaneous impulse must be kept at bay.
That it was mainly weakness I see now,
But then my feelings curled back in dismay.
Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:
Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns
My blood. The poor man’s curt embarrassment
At such a delicate proffer of affection
Cut like a saw. But home the lesson went:
My tenderness thenceforth escaped detection.
My mother sang ‘Because’, and ‘Annie Laurie’,
‘White Wings’, and other songs; her voice was sweet.
I never gave enough, and I am sorry;
But we were all closed in the same defeat.
People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?
Judgment is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.
The living cannot call the dead collect:
They won’t accept the charge, and it reverts.
It’s my own judgment day that I draw near,
Descending in the past, without a clue,
Down to that central deadness: the despair
Older than any Hope I ever knew.