To be ‘in Residence’ at the Museum presents many different challenges but the very first is where to set up camp. Those who visit Jane Austen’s House have not come to see me – I’m a stranger in their midst. I don’t want to intrude on their time to glimpse her view from the bedroom window, their quiet examination of the grain in the wooden table at which she wrote, their moment of wonder or their quiet reflection.
I choose the bakehouse, an outhouse, and keep company with a donkey cart and a washtub. It proves right for me and right for the visitors who are not so overawed by Janeness when they stumble upon me there beside a means of washing not so very different from that which their mothers or grandmothers once used. From that , other conversation springs. It’s a small space and this means that only a few come in at a time and feel better able to talk. Soon we’re onto poetry: someone recites Wordsworth, another discusses the poems he writes for his church magazine, an admirer of Ogden Nash and Edward Lear asks if I know any limericks (I do – we share a scurrilous laugh), a man who writes odes for family occasions asks whether I feel that form is still alive and kicking, Sue reels off her favourite Philip Larkin poem ('Trees’) and Zoe knows the whole of The Cat in the Hat. A couple from Taiwan like the idea of finding a Living writer in this writer’s house and take a selfie with me. They tell me to read Chen Li, one of Taiwan’s best contemporary poets. Kitty, from California, feels cold in our sunshine and laughs to see me dressed for summer still and she for winter – ‘a poet !‘ she says, staring at me in a friendly puzzled way. What she means is what most people think, I imagine, but are too polite to say: why are you here?
A group from the Netherlands assume that I am here to write about Jane in verse. In answer I show them the last two stanzas of Jane Austen’s poem:
A Mock Panegyric on a Young Friend
‘Oh how can I her person try
To image and portray?
How paint the face, the form how trace,
In which those virtues lay?
Another world must be unfurled,
Another language known,
Ere tongue or sound can publish round
Her charms of flesh and bone.’
I could praise her, as the panegyric form requires, but how do I ‘unfurl’ her world? Here lies the next challenge....
A couple arrive amazed and delighted by the idea of a ‘residency’, something they have never encountered before. They leave discussing the possibility of finding a way to have a musician in residence in their village. Ruby , thinking of her sister, recites some lines of Keats with tears in her eyes. Several visitors tell me how their mother or father loved poetry, that they don’t read it themselves anymore but like to be reminded of it. A young man comes in alone and tells me he likes Robert Frost. A lady from Cardiff tells me of a cottage lived in by an old friend and how the strangest of smells would never shift. How in the ancient fireplace they had found a child’s shoe, often placed to ward off evil. You know what it was, that smell, she said, it was the smell of fear. She nods at me and leaves.
On the way home I think over my day, the secrets and memories that even the idea of poetry seems to evoke, when the ghost of it is raised – and the pleasure and deep feelings it stirs when recalled.
Poet in Residence
You can read more about the residency elsewhere on the website.