We were asked to write about a journey. I played a bit fast and loose with the idea.
I have a bit more to say about the thinking behind this piece, but I'll save it until after you've read the story. I don't want to spoil it for you...
I made some significant changes to this piece after I presented it to the group. The comments I received were very useful indeed. And that's the whole point of belonging to a writer's group, of course. Lyn, the convenor, made some particularly cogent remarks. She found one paragraph which had far too many words in it! Once I cut the unecessary words out of it, it was a much stronger and tighter paragraph. Thank you Lyn, and thank you everybody else as well. I learned a lot from this exercise.
It was the first day of the new school term. Everyone slouched glumly into the classroom and sat down at their desks. Jeremy felt extremely gloomy. He'd spent the summer holidays riding his horse in several village gymkhanas, and he was finding the classroom particularly claustrophobic after all those weeks of galloping freedom.
He took his swiss army knife out of his pocket and, with the gadget that was supposed to be used to take stones out of horses hooves, he scratched the silhouette of a horse on the lid of his desk.
The door swung open and Mr Atkinson, the English teacher, came into the classroom carrying an armful of books and a laptop computer. Jeremy hastily closed up his knife and put it back into his pocket. He tried to look attentive. Mr Atkinson plonked the books down on Jeremy's desk.
"Take one of these and pass the rest on," he said. "OK, everybody, this term we're going to be studying the poems of Robert Browning."
Along with everyone else in the class, Jeremy groaned a protest.
Mr Atkinson looked surprised. "What's the problem?" he asked.
"Browning is boring sir," said Jeremy. "He's so nineteenth century."
"Nice alliteration," said Mr Atkinson. "But I'm puzzled by your use of the word 'boring'. Browning wrote a really gruesome poem about a sexually motivated murder, and he used one of the rudest words in the dictionary in another one of his poems. What's boring about any of that? Trust me, we're going to delve into some very sick and dark places before the term is over. I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy it. But we're going to start the study with the poem How They Brought The Good News From Ghent To Aix. It's all about some horsemen galloping through the night to deliver the news and the whole rhythm of the poem matches the rhythm of a galloping horse. It's really quite clever."
Jeremy felt a faint stirring of interest. If the poem involved horses, it couldn't be all that bad. And the murder sounded interesting as well. Perhaps the term wouldn't be a complete waste of time after all. He stuck his hand in the air. "Yes, Jeremy?" asked Mr Atkinson.
"Can't we start with the murder instead, sir? I like the sound of that."
"We'll do that one next," promised Mr Atkinson. "I want to do the Good News poem first because there's actually a recording of Browning reciting it. I thought it might be a good idea to listen to the man himself before we start to examine his work."
"I didn't know they had recording studios back then," said Jeremy.
"They didn't," explained Mr Atkinson. "Browning was at a dinner party and his host had just bought himself an Edison Talking Machine, a newly invented device for recording sounds on wax cylinders. It must have cost the man an absolute fortune... Anyway, he persuaded Browning to recite his poem into the machine. It's one of the very first recordings ever made. Listen."
Mr Atkinson opened up his laptop and pressed a button. There was a hiss and a crackle and, very faintly, Jeremy could hear a surprisingly thin and reedy voice reciting the poem. The galloping rhythm was easy to follow and Jeremy was just relaxing into it when Browning faltered and stopped reciting. There was a long pause and then Browning said, "I am most terribly sorry that I cant remember my own verses."
The whole class burst into delighted laughter. Mr Atkinson grinned. "I thought you'd enjoy starting the term with that bit," he said.
"Sir," said Jeremy, "if the person who wrote them can't remember the verses, will it be all right if we can't remember them when it comes to the exam?"
"Certainly not," said Mr Atkinson firmly. "Now, you'll find this poem on page forty two. Let's take a look at it. Jeremy, can you read it for us, please?"
Everyone opened their books to the proper page. Jeremy cleared his throat and began to read. The poem's rhythm was quite hypnotic, and he quickly found himself galloping along with Joris and Dirck and the unnamed narrator. It wasn't nearly as good as actually riding of course, but there was no doubt that the poem properly caught the feeling of being on the back of a galloping horse.
Once the galloping was done and the news was delivered, the poem's narrator finally relaxed and poured wine down his horse's throat as a reward for having carried him so far, so fast and so gallantly.
"That's stupid," said Jeremy. "Horses don't like wine. He'd have done a lot better to give his horse a bucket of water and a nosebag of oats. I bet Browning never looked after a horse in his life. No wonder he forgot how the poem went!"
"That's as may be," said Mr Atkinson. "Anyway, the narrator's horse was the only one of the three who managed to carry his rider all the way. First Dirck and then Joris had to drop out as their horses succumbed to fatigue. So how do you think the narrator felt once he reached Aix with the good news after having galloped all night?"
Jeremy cast his mind back over all the gymkhanas he'd ridden in that summer. The answer was blindingly obvious.
"I expect he had a very sore bottom, sir," said Jeremy.
As always, the structure was hard to put together. Once I decided to riff on the Browning poem, I needed a reason to introduce it into the story. That gave me my classroom scenario. Then I had to give my protagonists a reason for wanting to study Browning. So I made Browning out to be a sick and depraved poet (I actually believe that you can make a good case for that). That gave me a way to get the teacher to introduce the subject to the class. In the specific case of the Good News poem, I needed to plant the idea of a horse being important to the person reading the poem. Hence the introduction of Jeremy, the horsey boy in the first paragraph. It could be argued that the protagonist should be a girl rather than a boy because girls are traditionally more horsey than boys. But on the other hand, because I'd made Browning out to be such an unattractive person, I didn't think that a girl would be motivated to study him. However teenage boys rather enjoy that kind of thing...
The recording of Browning reciting his poem and forgetting the words still exists. There are lots of links to it on the web — Google is your friend. Browning died about eight months after making the recording and it was played at his funeral. It has been described as the first ever instance of a voice being heard from beyond the grave. Spooky! I can't help but think that Browning himself would have thoroughly approved of the sentiment.
The poem about a sexual murder is Porphyria's Lover in which the narrator makes love to Porphyria and then strangles her with her own long, blonde hair...
The rude word was used in the poem Pippa Passes:
Then owls and bats
Cowls and twats
Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry
Apparently Browning thought the word described an item of clothing worn by nuns. None of his friends ever had the courage to tell him what itreally meant so he remained in blissful ignorance throughout his life...