While I was researching the life of the Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins, I came across this poem. It is quoted in Wilkins’ biography, ‘No More Beyond’ by Simon Nasht, and it is without doubt one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever read. It was found among Sir Hubert’s papers after his death.
THE FLYING YEARS
Not twice may any stand by the same stream,
Not twice possess the years that hasten on;
Something there was we looked on, loved, ‘tis gone
Or stays but as the shadow of a dream.
Hands that we touched clasp ours no more, and eyes
That shone for us as stars withdrew their light;
Voices beloved pass out into the night;
The gift of yesterday, today denies.
Yet we must hold it for a deeper truth,
Nothing that is, but only that which seems
Shall find its dwelling in the place of dreams;
The soul’s possession is eternal youth.
Swift flows the stream, but in it as it flows
The same unchanging stars are mirrored bright.
Swift fly the years, but heedless of their flight
The touch of time, not love nor friendship knows.
Anonymous, attributed to Sir Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958)
I first came across ‘The Flying Years’ in the excellent biography of Sir Hubert Wilkins called ‘No More Beyond’ by Simon Nasht. Wilkins’ wife, Suzanne, said that the explorer had “more than a touch of the poet” in him, and revealed that this was one of his favourites, but she just stopped short of admitting that the poem was his. But he had kept it among his papers… it was all very tantalising.
With the help of Laura Kissel, curator of the research centre at Ohio State University where Wilkins’ papers are kept, and the staff of two libraries in New York, I discovered that the poem was first published anonymously in an anthology called ‘Songs of Adventure’ by Robert Frothingham in 1926. This leaves the authorship still open to question – but in view of Wilkins’ habitual dislike of the limelight, I am inclined to think that the anonymity suited him perfectly. In any case, it seems to be a perfect echo of his own philosophy of life, death, and eternity. I shall treasure it, and I hope that you will love it as much as I do.
My grateful thanks to the following kind people for their help in trying to identify the source:
- Simon Nasht (author of ‘No More Beyond’)
- Laura J Kissel, Polar Curator, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program, Ohio State University
- Matthew Boylan, New York Public Library
- Sally Stieglitz, Stony Brook University Libraries, New York
- Kaye Ridge, relative of Sir Hubert Wilkins
Haunted by the childhood trauma of drought and famine, inspired by a vision of predicting weather on a global scale, and cheating death more times than you’d ever believe possible… Sir Hubert Wilkins was an extraordinary man. Read more about him in this post on Explorers of the RSGS