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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Love Songs

Love Songs


December 23, 2006
I stayed past the last blustery days of Michaelmas term, a teenager loitering alone amid the empty boarding school's gothic arches in order to go carol singing with girls. I hoped to see one in particular, from the girls' high-school up the road, a sweet swan, all slender wrists and ankles and full of bright warmth, pretty as the South. Mutually besotted for 10 months, we had parted in baffled pain, as helpless lovers do. I lived the afterdays of sorrowing and sighing as if in a posthumous state. Whatever the cliché about raging hormones, teenage enchantment is nothing if not metaphysical, religious on many levels -- full of the infinite regret of life. Christmas itself, its literal meaning of hope-in-despair, and stray lyrics from carols, of a sudden felt acutely real. Could I, at all, sing away my plight, drive away the shaves of night?

She stood some three or four people away, in the light of a large Victorian doorway where I had, not days before, mourned in lonely exile. "O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him" -- and me too, me too! I sang it loudly even in the first sotto voce chorus line, sending note after note of subliminal suggestion. An eye flickered in response, nothing more. Snow started falling, wondrous stars in the doorway light. The jaunty lyrics of so many carols are often belied by somber melodies and for the disconsolate the combination achieves a kind of perfect pitch. I found myself in rapid succession both exhilarated and near to weeping. Then, though, the lyrics caught the mood perfectly: "Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume/ Breathes a life of gathering gloom."

Love always needs to find its range to survive, the precise balance of closeness and distance. Teenage love incessantly overleaps the line, grows inseparable and then bereft. I stared and stared: any tidings from those features, any tidings at all? "The Little Drummer Boy" struck up; tall figures moved between us, veiled our faces. Each pom, pom, pom fell into place like the snow; and as in the famous phrase in Joyce's "Dubliners," "he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe" -- or so it seemed. So often carols veer from sublime to desolate and back -- they are, after all, a form of praise and prayer for redemption. For a moment, the figures parted and I caught a glimpse, a fraction of bliss to see a face. "Pom, pom, pom, I am a poor boy too" -- no, no, I disdained that thought. So would she. One gathers treasure over time, gem by gem, in the form of perfect thoughts, acts, moments of mad virtue, and one lays one's finest gifts at the loved one's feet. I willed myself to excel for her, and sang gloriously, louder than ever.

Different schools and boarding rules had often kept us apart, which led us to communicate indirectly through little notes in secret niches. "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," I would write, from "King Lear," and be delighted that she'd got it before nightfall. How hard we struggled to keep contact. And now, all communication sealed off, all dull as tombs, but for these hosannas. Falling in love divides narrative time in two: all that went before and all that came after. As we shuffled through dark shining streets, the hopes and fears of all the years -- years I had not yet lived -- met in my Hallelujas. I will not tell you how it ended. Only to say that, when you hit the right note, the invocation of hope becomes hope realized, which once revealed to you, never goes away.

Mr. Kaylan is a writer in New York. He was at boarding school at Clifton College in Bristol, England, in the 1970s.
The article above is laced with embedded references to various Carol lyrics. There are almost a dozen in all.


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