My Father Piped Songs of Pleasant Glee

Blake, frontispiece to "Songs of Innocence"

Blake, frontispiece to “Songs of Innocence”

The four Bates brothers have arrived in Sewanee and have been gathered around my father all day waiting for the end. He has had moment of consciousness but, for the most part, is oblivious to his surroundings. Nevertheless, I spent some time reading to him from a 19th century poetry anthology I happened to have with me.

He appeared to respond most favorably to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. As I read the introductory poem–our roles reversed from when I had been small–I felt that I was thanking him for how he had been the piper of my childhood. Here it is:

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry cheer.
“Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.

“Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer!”
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

“Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.”
So he vanished from my sight,
And I plucked a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

When I was a child, I surrendered entirely and utterly to the poems that my father wrote for us and to the stories that he read. Like the child in the poem, sometimes I laughed delighted, as I did with Tom Sawyer and Milt Gross’ Nize Baby. Sometimes I sobbed, as I did with the endings of Kate Douglas Wiggins’ The Birds’ Christmas Carol, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

When he read to us, he relived his own childhood innocence. Together we experienced pure, unadulterated joy.

Go in peace, my beloved piper.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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