For long ago, the truth to say
He has grown up and gone away
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Having finally admitted I’ve been dragged up and over that same garden’s wall, I find myself reflecting on John Steinbeck and his late-in-life, metaphorical Odyssey through America, his native land, his “garden.” In Travels With Charley, at the physical and literary wheel of a truck he named Rocinante, Steinbeck toured America and tilted with increasing dismay at racist and political schism, the trashing of the environment and, even in 1960, a people driven by fear, sapped of their fabled spirit of adventure. By the time he returned to New York, soon to die, he felt lost, lamenting the cull of gentler, brighter, national dreams. His Huck Finn raft, as he saw it, had pretty well gone round the bend.
But then, are we not “such stuff as dreams are made on” (Prospero/Shakespeare) and even so, “a dreamer lives forever, and a toiler dies in a day” (John O’Reilly), which prompts my sanguine plaint: must we blithely “go gently into that dark night “ (Dylan Thomas) and fade as that phantom wraith, left alone beside his swing, bled of wonderment and aspiration, the nurturing alcove permanently walled off? All in thrall of “maturity” and the mere passage of years?
Call me naive for still heeding the whims and yearning of my original soul, but it’s not dementia or coy romanticism which my dear spouse apprehends when she catches me staring down the St. Lawrence in the morning; not Stevenson’s “another child, far, far away,” but an incorrigible acolyte of promise, a constant mariner visualizing voyages yet to make. As history was once real life, so dreams and adolescent verve feed present reality.
Every once in a while, in the evening, I play Jimmy Hendrix’ ethereal, neck-tingling version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and in a brief mystical burst, throb with the anticipation of the “two riders…approaching, and the wind began to howl;” a torch glows on my parapet, flickering with dramatic, as yet undefined, purpose and then …and then I whisk out to the garden and “up in the air I go flying again.”
Some carp that Steinbeck was tilting at windmills, but better that than wind turbines! It’s your choice: stay on board Masefield’s grim ghost ship, that “dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack,” or take brave heart and fresh winds on a “stately Spanish galleon.”
Chris McNaught is a writer and former criminal lawyer who lives in the Glebe.