Nostalgia (a yearning for a golden, bygone age) is present, to a greater or lesser degree in all of us. This hankering for the past runs through much poetry and is beautifully expressed by A. E Housman in his “A Shropshire Lad”:
“INTO my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again”.
In the above lines, Housman evokes a happy childhood. The recollection of which is, however tinged with regret, hence “into my heart an air that kills”. We cannot, try as we might, recreate the past and melancholy oft creeps into our soul when gazing back.
Nostalgia frequently expresses itself in a wistful evocation of a vanishing way of life. Take, for example the speech delivered by Stanley Baldwin to the Royal Society of St George in 1927:
“To me, England is the country, and the country is England. And when I ask myself what I mean by England when I am abroad, England comes to me through
my various senses — through the ear, through the eye and through certain imperishable scents … The sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil
in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow
of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land … the one eternal sight of England”.
Baldwin was a one-nation Conservative and one can detect in his speech the longing of the man of a conservative disposition to preserve what he considers to be the intrinsic characteristics of the society which nurtures him. Baldwin was both a political and (small c) Conservative. As such the beauty of the above passage touches the souls of those who are small (c) conservatives, as well as individuals who are Conservative with a big (c). At the time of Baldwin’s speech, agriculture was already well on the way to mechanisation (the horse was being replaced by the tractor, and the tinkle of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil was becoming a rarity), yet Baldwin felt their importance as, for him they helped to make England, England.
My own work is not immune from nostalgia. Take, for example my poem, “Squire and Peasant” which runs thus:
“I see a vanished land
Where the squire held command
Over the countryside,
Before the tide
And paternalism was spurned,
Or merely ebbed away
Ushering in a new day.
To hounds he rode
Or through his estate strode
In search of grouse or pheasant.
With countenance pleasant
He ruled his peasants
Far and near.
Sometimes a thinker
And often a drinker
He felt a connection with the whole
Estate, his soul
Was as one
with generations, long since gone.
He did hate
Out for the preservation of the old ways.
The rock-like squire faltered
As the wind of progress
That does redress
All ills, brought salvation
To the nation.
Now those who the price of everything know, hold command
While squire and peasant stand
Bemused, upon this altered land”.
The relationship between squire and peasant could be abusive. There where (and remain) bad landowners. However, at its best the connection between the squire and his tenantry was one of mutual dependence. The lord of the manor felt an obligation to his tenants who, in turn where glad to have a benign squire. This semi-feudal state of affairs has now vanished (in the west at least) and cannot be recreated. Yet, at its best is there, perhaps not something to be said in defence of this “vanished land”? or is the loosening of social bonds and the glorification of the individual an unmitigated good? Some may object that it is easier for the squire to be nostalgic than the peasant for it was the former who “held command”. Perhaps …
In conclusion, nostalgia is a characteristic present to a greater or lesser extent in most of humanity. Looking back to a “golden age” is, ultimately a harmless activity and can help people to cope with what can seem a cold and rather plastic present. While we cannot live in the past, we can learn from it, for by no means everything predating the present age was wholly bad. We must, however be wary of allowing nostalgia to degenerate into a blind reactionary hatred of the present. The position of racial minorities, women and other previously marginalised groups has, for example, improved over time and few would wish to put the clock back as regards such progress.
(Kevin Morris’s collection of poetry, “My Old Clock I Wind and other Poems” is available at http://moyhill.com/clock/).