Poem of the week: Ifs by Caroline Norton

A wry, pastoral fantasy aimed at romantic types, this all-but forgotten poem irresistibly recalls one of the most famous. And arguably outdoes it

OH! If the winds could whisper what they hear,
When murmuring round at sunset through the grove;
If words were written on the streamlet clear,
So often spoken fearlessly above:
If tell-tale stars, descending from on high,
Could image forth the thoughts of all that gaze,
Entranced upon that deep cerulean sky,
And count how few think only of their rays!

If the lulled heaving ocean could disclose
All that has passed upon her golden sand,
When the moon-lighted waves triumphant rose,
And dashed their spray upon the echoing strand:
If dews could tell how many tears have mixed
With the bright gem-like drops that Nature weeps,
If night could say how many eyes are fixed
On her dark shadows, while creation sleeps!

If echo, rising from her magic throne,
Repeated with her melody of voice
Each timid sigh – each whispered word and tone,
Which made the hearer’s listening heart rejoice:
If Nature could, unchecked, repeat aloud
All she hath heard and seen – must hear and see –
Where would the whispering, vowing, sighing crowd
Of lovers, and their blushing partners, be?

Caroline Norton, granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was a poet, novelist, pamphleteer and social reformer. Although I’ve chosen an example of her lighter verse, it’s worth reading her more serious and sustained pieces of writing; for example, her condemnation of child labour, A Voice from the Factories, combines fluent versification and eloquent “protest”.

“Ifs” is an almost purely playful short poem from her 1830 collection, The Undying One and Other Poems. Its readability owes a lot to its chosen grammatical structure – a cadenza of conditional clauses, introduced by the subordinate conjunction, “If”. The structure effortlessly sets up readers’ expectations. It leads us inexorably towards the moment when all will be revealed, we hope, by the main clause – in this case, a main clause phrased as a mischievous but resonant question (lines 23 and 24). Earlier, we may have wondered if the poem could possibly say anything very significant at the end. In the event, it doesn’t disappoint.

Underneath the grammatical logic, the poem is a charming exercise in romantic impressionism. It catches moods, imagining sentimental-pastoral scenes possibly threaded through with the trace of a love story. If Nature and her associated elements could somehow disclose the lovers’ words and activities, the poem asks, what then?

Speech is the focus of the first four lines of the first stanza. These lines imagine a situation in which the lovers’ words could be whispered by the evening winds and (possibly reminding us of Keats’s epitaph) “written on the streamlet clear”. Then the focus changes to an interestingly complex fantasy of thoughts becoming visible. Shooting stars might “image forth” the thoughts which, being lovers’ thoughts, would not be about starlight. Each of the first two stanzas ends with an almost saucy little last-line joke of this kind, which Norton has made sure to emphasise with an italicisation.

In the second stanza “all that has passed upon (the ocean’s) golden sand” seems to invite an interpretation as daring as a modern reader might wish. These four lines are remarkably effective: the “lulled heaving” ocean with its rising “moon-lighted waves”, the flying spray and echoing strand are brilliant in their discreet eroticism. But now, it seems, the lovers must part … Poetic decorum is restored with the softer focus on tears and eyes.

If a narrative is indeed hinted in the poem, the last stanza subtly indicates that the lovers have been reunited. It imagines “timid” sighs, then words, again (“each whispered word and tone, / Which made the hearer’s listening heart rejoice”) and at last prepares for the crescendo to the poem’s main clause. At first, Nature is imagined repeating, “All she hath heard and seen – must hear and see –”. That “must” is a powerful reminder of the inevitability of natural renewal in which human lovers participate, and the fancy of Nature being able, “unchecked”, to utter all the discourse of love out loud. This has a symphonic richness and spaciousness beyond the whimsical. And so prepared, we reach the main clause, a rhetorical question splendidly laden with present participles: “Where would the whispering, vowing, sighing crowd / Of lovers, and their blushing partners, be?”

Ifs is a poem surely designed to please, with an imagined readership of young people, male and female, who themselves are lovers. Which likelihood brings me to a very different poetic cadenza on the conditional, the one that everyone will already have recalled, Rudyard Kipling’s If.

Writing in 1909, Kipling had his son in mind as the poem’s primary reader. The “model” character he draws on is that of his friend, Dr LS Jameson. The two poems are poles apart in intention – and in many other ways, of course. Even the titles are distinct. Norton’s plural, which turns the conjunction into a noun (as in “ifs and buts”) is already mischievous, while Kipling’s conjunction already seems to show its “stiff upper lip”. Kipling’s poem is didactic, and it looks at hypothetical situations that could readily happen: Norton fantasises. One “if” is what an old-fashioned grammarian would call the First Conditional, the other (Norton’s) the Second, because her imagined events are unlikely to happen. But the grammatical structures have a significant amount in common.

Kipling’s is a fine poem, in its way, although I’ve often thought it a surprising victor in the search for “the nation’s favourite”. But the total eclipse of the poem that could have engendered it (and the marginalisation of Norton’s work in general) is regrettable. Let’s not forget that the more famous If has a feminine predecessor. As far as charm and originality are concerned, dare I suggest that Norton’s poem has the edge on Kipling’s?


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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