Seven stars are in the sky.
Six and six go equal.
Five’s the rambeaux in his boat.
Four score’s an acre.
Three’s a driver.
Two’s a lily of the day,
Dressed in scarlet and green-o,
And the one, the one, that is alone,
It shall no longer be alone.
These words, or something close to them at least, are taken from a classic of children’s literature from Irene Hunt, Across Five Aprils, a coming of age novel set in Civil War southern Illinois. Irene Hunt is an interesting novelist, about whom I know little, though I have one of her lesser-known novels, another dark coming of age tale set in Depression-era America, No Promises In The Wind. Not knowing about Mrs. Hunt’s life in detail, it is a bit difficult to understand why she wrote such harrowing tales about children in really desperate straits.
In No Promises In The Wind, for example, the two young heroes are basically tramps and hobos, one of whom falls in love with a beautiful but terribly depressed young lady who works as a clown. In Across Five Aprils, a more popular work, one of the brother’s of the protagonist is threatened with the firing squad for desertion. Clearly Irene Hunt must have been driven to write by some dark muse. No one who thinks of childhood as idyllic writes childhood novels like that. Clearly Irene Hunt was someone who had a much darker view of the fate that awaited children who happened to be born in the wrong place or the wrong time, a dark worldview she turned into beautiful and realistic, if a bit chilling, juvenile fiction.
And yet within that darkness and danger, there is often a haunting and somber beauty. Let us take the example of the irony to a sad clown. I have always thought of clowns as a particularly melancholy lot, given what I know of melancholy and of comics and how people who make others laugh for a living are often the most depressed people of them all, because humor is found in great tragedy, and the comic can make everyone laugh except for himself (or herself). A clown is merely a comic of a different sort, wearing a mask, painting on a smile, dressing in a silly costume, and playing the fool for silly people who cannot see the sorrow behind the eyes, laughing at silly and superficial gags. What is more depressing than that?
A similar beauty is told in the poem with which I began this entry. The poem is, in the novel, taught by an Appalachian-born mother to the hero, and she sings it in all of its melancholy beauty as a sort of lullaby, but the song has always deeply moved me. I too am a melancholy child of the Appalachians, of the lonely green hills of Western Pennsylvania, beautiful hills stripped bare for their coal and shipped down rivers with funny names to cities like McKeesport (where I was born) to be turned into steel. Lullabies are some of the saddest songs around, if you listen to them closely. This particular one speaks of the Pliedes constellation, and also seems to refer to the seven stars of Revelation 2 and 3 in a roundabout way. It speaks of equality, the boats that bring migrants over the rivers like the Ohio to a better life, of farmland, of a man and his team of oxen, of the flowers of the field, and of loneliness. Any child of the farmland knows those things deep within, without having to be told.
I remember as a child visiting Western Pennsylvania to visit my father, and when I was not busy reading a book by myself in some corner of the farmhouse built by my great-great-grandfather Leonard Miller, himself a veteran of the Civil War (he served in the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, to be precise ), I would walk outside down to the creek and follow it to near the boundaries of the farm, where I would sit alone and ponder. I would look out around me from the hills on all sides to the houses afar off.
The trick of the song is that being alone does not make one lonely. One can be alone and lost in one’s thoughts and not even realize that one is alone, or care. One can be lonely in a crowd of people, if one does not feel loved or respected by them. If one is alone, company can almost always be found, if all one wants is someone there. But loneliness is a different problem altogether. If you do not feel at home within yourself, how can you feel comfortable anywhere else? For loneliness is something we carry within ourselves wherever we go, not something we can leave behind us when we go.