Work, Commuting, and a Poem From The Underground

Tomorrow I have a new job, and for the first time in around eight years I won’t be able to walk to work. It won’t be a bad trip – just a couple of miles in the car, out of town to a nice modern building on an industrial estate – and I could walk it, but not each way every day.

But a  certain book that has been sitting on our dining table for a while now, a lovely new edition of Poems on the Underground, reminded me of past journeys to work that I remember with some fondness.I’m recalling a time when I was living in North London, in Queensbury, which was (and I’m sure still is) near the end of the Jubilee Line. That meant that I always got a seat and so I could sit and read happily all the way to Charing Cross. Then I just had a five-minute walk, across Trafalgar Square and up St Martin’ Lane to my desk.

The journey took a certain amount of time, but I got so much reading done.

I’ve written before about browsing and buying in Charing Cross Road in my lunch breaks. What I haven’t confessed before is that there were times when I headed into the Charing Cross branch of Waterstones on the way home as well. Not too often, but often enough.

And with Charing Cross being at the very end of the Jubilee Line I almost always got a seat for the journey home. And that was more reading done.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. I can forget the disrupted journeys, the early starts and late nights, but I can remember the wealth of book shops and the regular blocks of guilt free reading time …

I realise now that I have the book that I must have missed many Poems on the Underground, poems where  advertisements would usually be, when my nose was stuck firmly in a book.

This is one of them that caught my eye.

Sonnet XLIII by Edna St Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

* * * * *

I didn’t discover Edna St Vincent Millay until a few years after I left London, but now I love her.

So it is worth looking up from your book from time to time to see what you can see in the world around you.

And it’s always worth looking in poetry anthologies, because you might just find the poem or the poet you didn’t know you was missing from your life.

11 responses

  1. Commutes are so funny. I”ve gone from years spending almost an hour packed in like a sardine (no seat, no book, eventually audtiobooks on my Ipod) to a 15-minute commute where I always get a seat. Oh, the irony! And what’s more, when I first moved to Boston 20 years ago we actually had a Waterstone’s here. I remember treating myself to half an hour in a parking lot after my interview, at some exorbitant cost, so I could go there. And now that it’s long gone, I now live what would have been a 10-minute walk away. :) Congratulations on your new job, and all best wishes!

  2. Poems on the Underground is one of my favourite anthologies, and I’ve often thought it’s a shame that other companies and organisations don’t take up the idea so we could have poems on buses, or at supermarket checkouts. Good luck with the new job.

  3. I lived in London back in 1991 and I loved the poems on the tube. I wrote my favourite ones down in my travel diary. I seem to recall one about a cat that I particularly adored.
    I’m going to see if I can get this book in Australia – thanks:-)

  4. What a beautiful poem! I don’t know much about Edna St Vincent Millay, but “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” was one of the poems I grew up with as a child and I have never forgotten it. I think I’m going to look for a book of her poems… Thank you for sharing this!

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