Wednesday 29 August 2012

The power of the misquote

The Black Mountains are long, long ridges; one can walk along them for hours, and see for miles in good weather.  Herefordshire in the sun, seen from above: AE Housman’s lines from A Shropshire Lad kept going and going through my head –

And see the coloured counties,
  Hung out against the sky.

I quoted this to my companions, too.  Just now I was emailing a friend and wanted to use the quote, so I checked it for the exact wording.  I got a shock.  AEH wrote, in ‘Bredon Hill’:

Here of a Sunday morning
  My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
  And hear the larks so high
  About us in the sky. 

I still can’t believe that he didn’t write the version that’s still in my head.  (If he did, someone please tell me where.)  ‘Hung out’ is accurate, from a height, in these border parts.  The phrase describes the phenomenon of a low landscape appearing to have an unnaturally high horizon.  This happens with the sea too, sometimes – it can reach halfway up the sky, like a stage backdrop climbing up its wall.  The phrase also makes one think of washing on a line, so apt for the field-pattern of distorted rectangles.  

Sound may have played a part in my misremembering.  ‘Hung out against’ sounds like ‘About us in’.  And for many years I’ve had a recording of Robert Tear singing, with the CBSO, Vaughan Williams’ song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.  (The other side – this is vinyl – has Thomas Allen singing Songs of Travel, another VW song-cycle.)  I taped this record when I lived in Greece, and used to play it when driving, enjoying the incongruity and nostalgia of such English music in the midst of Greekness.  I’ve got a memory of playing it on Crete, while travelling through the mountains and across the hidden Lassithi Plateau with its derelict windmills…  sometimes contrasts can work powerfully together. 

Looking north from the Skirrid, Black Mountains on left
There was no lark song on the Black Mountains, though I remember them everywhere a couple of years ago, in June, plus a few golden plovers nesting in the remotest parts, barely visible in long grass but recognisable from their haunting call.  A lark’s life must be hard work, so much struggling high while singing; maybe they have a rest in August.  Last week there were buzzards, and ravens, and kites, sometimes sweeping below us.  This week I’ve missed waking up at 1,200 feet, far above everyone and everything except the birds, a few sheep and wild ponies, and the mountain: heather, bracken, earth and rock.

Above and below the cloud line

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