My Grandmother’s Favorite Poem

A Vagabond Song

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood-

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With yellow and the purple

And the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can

Shake me like a cry

Of bugles going by.

And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the frosty aster like a

Smoke upon the hill.

There is something in October

Sets the gypsy

Blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each

Vagabond by name.

By Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey

When my grandmother on my dad’s side died 12 years ago, my mom gave me a poem, “A Vagabond Song,” telling me it had been my grandmother’s favourite. It was a short poem on a small piece of paper, so I folded it up and put it in my wallet, and it is still there. I don’t know why. Like most poetry, I hesitate to claim that I understand it, and since my grandmother is gone, I cannot ask her what drew her to it. But I read it every year, at the time of year it is about, the autumn, October, and since I’ve been on facebook, I share it there for others to read. Perhaps because I have read it more often and for longer than any other poem, and perhaps because it is more straight forward than most poems I read, I have developed a connection to it, and it has become my favourite poem as well. Or perhaps the poem is just the connecting bridge, and the connection is with my grandmother.

I don’t really lack for connections to my grandmother. In a big, plastic tub in a closet at my parents house are close to a thousand playbills, if not more, most of which came from her and her visits to Broadway. I was just getting into Broadway when she died, and, about a year before she died, I was sharing with her my first playbills, Bat Boy and Kiss Me, Kate, from my first visit to New York City. A year later, shortly before she died, I saw one of her favourite Broadway stars, Michael Crawford (another connection we share) in Dance of the Vampires. Her death was the first major death in my life, which I suppose makes me lucky, as I was almost 15 at the time. It was a learning experience. I don’t know why I was given the poem, but I latched onto it, as perhaps the most beautiful possible memento of the occasion.

Few if any baritones go through high school and college voice lessons without singing “The Vagabond,” part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, based on a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is similar in theme to “A Vagabond Song,” being also about autumn and winter and about traveling. I would have first sung that around the same time I received this poem, and singing, I don’t think I have to clarify, is a very different experience from reading or even reciting. I had only, really, just started singing, and “The Vagabond” is a powerful song, vocally. I don’t think I connected to it as much as with the poem, but I definitely loved it for its themes. The same themes, as I wrote in July, flow from the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, of travel and restlessness, of it always being time to go. There was a time, I hear tell, when it could always be time to go, and for some people today with the right resources, that might still be true, but not for most.

Maybe this poem is why autumn has long been my favourite season; “Yellow and the purple and the crimson” all over the sky, with a back drop of grey, not to mention the “hill[s] of flame.” Autumn also used to be when school started back up, and as much as I, like many kids, dreaded it, those many kids were there, and I looked forward to that, since I keep mostly to myself when not obligated to be part of a group. That is kind of the opposite of the sentiments of the poem and the song, the characters in which seem to prefer to be alone and on the move, and one with the seasons. Perhaps the gypsy in the poem takes the change in the season, as birds do, as a signal to travel south, where it won’t be as cold. The poet writes of the aster, a flower that blooms in the autumn. I’ll have to look out for it. Whatever in my life lead to it, autumn is when I feel most alive, too. And so the poem is about me, and I understand it. Onward to winter.

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