It Was Long Ago
By Eleanor Farjeon
I’ll tell you, shall I, something I remember?
Something that still means a great deal to me.
It was long ago.
A dusty road in summer I remember,
A mountain, and an old house, and a tree
That stood, you know,
Behind the house. An old woman I remember
In a red shawl with a grey cat on her knee
Humming under a tree.
She seemed the oldest thing I can remember.
But then perhaps I was not more than three.
It was long ago.
I dragged on the dusty road, and I remember
How the old woman looked over the fence at me
And seemed to know
How it felt to be three, and called out, I remember
“Do you like bilberries and cream for tea?”
I went under the tree.
And while she hummed, and the cat purred, I remember
How she filled a saucer with berries and cream for me
So long ago.
Such berries and such cream as I remember
I never had seen before, and never see
Today, you know.
And that is almost all I can remember,
The house, the mountain, the gray cat on her knee,
Her red shawl, and the tree,
And the taste of the berries, the feel of the sun I remember,
And the smell of everything that used to be
So long ago,
Till the heat on the road outside again I remember
And how the long dusty road seemed to have for me
No end, you know.
That is the farthest thing I can remember.
It won’t mean much to you. It does to me.
Then I grew up, you see.
How far back can you remember?
In It Was Long Ago, Eleanor Farjeon recounts an event that happened to her when she was about three. At the age when children begin to form lasting memories, for three-year-old Eleanor, the world was full of new surprises to be experienced with all the senses. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feelings – these are the details of Eleanor Farjeon’s memory poem. Her words describe her sensory impressions, creating vivid imagery. Can you see the old woman and hear her cat? Can you taste the bilberries (similar to blueberries) and cream, feel the sunshine and smell the outdoors? These are Farjeon’s experiences, but they feel like they could be ours, too.
And the manner in which she leads us is not as an adult having the experience, but as a child taking us by the hand. Through her “child eyes” the poet recalls that particular moment, feeling it as a young child. This enables her to live (relive) the experience as if for the first time. This is the magic of memory.
It is also a reminder that moments past can only live on in memory. “Then I grew up, you see,” Farjeon explains in her final line. And that is exactly what children do. With age and experience, their fresh, young eyes of innocence are effortlessly replaced with the (adult) eyes of knowledge and understanding. When Farjeon describes the old woman, as an adult woman I, myself, can imagine stepping into the role of the woman who shows kindness to the child. It is because of my age and experience that I am able to relate to the woman. I think that the adult Farjeon explores that role for herself, as well. She is no longer the three-year-old she once was, but a woman who can view the memory scene from an adult’s perspective.
It is not coincidental that Farjeon illustrates this idea of perspective by describing the dusty road. For her, as a young child, the road seemed to have no end. She hadn’t been down that road and she could not see its end. The same is true for the young child observing life. The child, having limited knowledge and experience, has little understanding of life’s measure; there is no reference point. It is only as one matures that one can know that the road, and life, have definite ends, even if those ends cannot be seen. Experience over time changes our perspective and understanding of life and the world.
Why does Farjeon tells us that, while her memory won’t mean much to us, it does mean a great deal to her? Perhaps she believes that her memory serves as a way to make permanent what has long since passed. The people, places, things, and feelings she experienced all those years ago have either changed or passed. She will never get the chance to go back to that novel moment in time, except through the gift of her memory, which for her brings happiness.
More significantly, perhaps the value of this particular memory to Farjeon is that it belongs, uniquely, to her. Because it is a part of her singular, individual past, it is a part of her own identity and life experience. The experience, and her memory of it, belong to Farjeon alone; no other person can claim it. While we may be able to relate to her experience, and perhaps have shared ones like it, we have not lived her distinct personal experience. This quality (of being an individual who experiences life in a unique way from a unique perspective) is what gives life meaning. When Farjeon shares the memory of her experience with us, she welcomes us to glimpse a moment in her life and see from her viewpoint. Her time in this world has value because she can think, feel, and express. Although I will never have the opportunity to meet Eleanor Farjeon, I feel that through her poem I have met and taken a walk with her down a dusty road in summer; I have made a connection with her as a fellow human being on the path of life. This is the gift that Eleanor Farjeon gives to her reader in It Was Long Ago.
Eleanor Farjeon was born in London in 1881. She wrote children’s stories and plays, poetry, biography, history and satire. In our time, Eleanor Farjeon’s most widely known work is the popular children’s hymn “Morning has Broken”, written in 1931 to an old Gaelic tune. Her other popular hymn is the Advent carol “People, Look East!”, usually sung to an old French melody.
Eleanor won many literary awards. Today, The Eleanor Farjeon Award for children’s literature is presented annually in her memory. Eleanor Farjeon died in 1965.