“Peaseblossom! Moth! Cobweb! Mustardseed!”
When at age 4 my daughter Anna became increasingly anxious at bedtime, I tried coaxing her to sleep with the most melodious poems I knew.
“Come live with me and be my love,” I began as I sat on her bed in a triangle of hallway light, rubbing her back. “And we will all the pleasures prove, / That valleys, groves, hills and fields, / Woods, or steepy mountain yields.” She breathed a little more slowly, as did I.
The “me” and “I” of Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” promises not only perfect weather and nature’s music to his beloved but also numerous luxurious handmade goods—if she agrees to live with him. When I spoke the lines to Anna, however, I gave her something right then and there, and with no strings attached—language so imaginative, musical, and delicious that we could see, hear, and taste it at once:
Fair lined slippers for the cold
With buckles of the purest gold.
A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs.
The power at the core of poetry—the power to conjure—had never been more evident to me.