Denise Levertov: ‘Beyond The End’ plus spiders and live snakes

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Dreaming Spires: Echiums and Foxgloves at Ness Gardens

Today I’m starting a new series of readings from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (ed.  Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey,  pub. New Directions 2013). Many thanks to New Directions for permission to reprint the poems here, see below for formal acknowledgement.

I will  be aiming to read about ten poems over the coming year. Unless they are very short, I’m not likely to finish a whole poem in one morning’s reading, so they may extend over a  few days. They will all be searchable under ‘Denise Levertov’.

In each case, I’ll be reading as if preparing for a Shared Reading group – first law, know how to read the poem as yourself. A poem like today’s might well benefit from being the only thing on the menu – it’s a rich poem.

The first poem is from  the 1957 collection, Here and Now.

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I begin by reading the whole poem through, aloud.

But before that, how did I choose it? Well, I have this lovely anthology of The Collected Poems from New Directions, and one Saturday afternoon I  set myself down the hammock in the back garden and started reading. I read them quite quickly, looking to be in some way touched, arrested by something (I don’t define that to myself at all). If that happens, without going in it,  then I make a little note ‘come back to this…’

In such a first-glance-reading I’m looking for a feeling that matches something I’ve got in me. Or maybe in some way, the poem surprises me. Either way,  fair to say, I chose this poem because of my felt response to it and that’s how I’ll be choosing all these poems in the Levertov series.

Now I read again, trying to see my own reactions as well as simply having them. Looking back, I feel my response really began at the word ‘energy’. Later it was deepened by ‘activate’ and ‘response’. Such thoughts things matter very much to me and I am interested in thinking about them. Wordsworth describes the human mind as ‘creator and receiver both’ and it feels like that to me, and I like trying to think about my mind. This seems about how life works.

But, going back to the poem and rereading, and noting my responses: I feel adrift and am also thinking right away, and that adrift is not quite knowing where I am in the first stanza because of the bit in brackets (not just available death). I  decide to go back to the start – again – and start again.  So, just to note, that in this poem which is new to me, I’ve read it three, four times before I even start trying to understand what it is, what my responses are.  You go back to retest the ground, to re-feel your feelings, to stumble into a sense of the sense.

I am back at the beginning and wondering about the inverted commas around ‘nature’, as if that word too, is uncertain, is not definite.

I’m asking myself first, what is ‘nature’ and how does that connect to ‘human nature’ – because this poem is about being human (I know that because of reading to the end several times).

The poem begins (‘In ‘nature’ there’s no choice’) at the point where Denise  realises there is a difference between our human nature and the wider nature. The brackets mean nature-as-we-think-of-it-as-not-us…green stuff, mountains, sky, bears.  This gets me thinking  – isn’t everything about human nature natural? Still, I continue with her and her distinction: other forms of nature seem to be ‘as they are’, from one end of the universe to the other:

flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are.

Flowers, touched by wind move but not of their own will, sun and moon seem static in the skies, with no decision in their placing. They are ‘as they are’. But not us, we ‘seem to have’ choice. Now to the difficult bracketed bit  ‘not just available death’ – does that mean: choice to be here or not, availability of suicide? That is the big choice, as Hamlet realised. Available death, too, in our ability to choose to kill each other? Flowers don’t have such choices.

Big as this is the choice is not only about death, as the next stanza tells us…

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

Why a spider’s thread? I remember Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ and wonder if Denise Levertov has remembered it, too? I know from my complete skimming read-through of the entire book that she often  remembers and quotes or partially echoes other poets in her work. I look up the Whitman.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

The filament launched forth by Whitman’s spider is very like the ‘energy’ Levertov  is thinking of here. I’m wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

In a Shared Reading group, I’d be stopping here to initiate a conversation about energy.

But oh dear. Time’s up – that went fast. More  on energy tomorrow.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

 

 

Silas Marner Day 19: Let Us Now Praise Powerful Women*

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Hydrangea and Madonna  lilies doing a good domestic job in the drain corner

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box. I’m picking up in Chapter X, where we learn how what was, to everyone else in the village, the subject of interesting, idle gossip (the robbery of Silas’s gold) is, to Silas himself, a possibly life-threatening trauma:

To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging. But now the fence was broken down–the support was snatched away. Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

There is no getting over this.

I’d noticed before that Silas, locked into his loom, had been likened to a spider. Now he’s suffering like an ant. That ‘blank’ that meets the ant ‘when the earth has broken away on its homeward path’ is memorable: there’s something so pathetic about the inability of the creature to  get over, get round, see beyond the breakage which has  stopped it. I always feel a bit scared when I see that – and  that feeling of fear must be because its only a step away from imagining what I might look like to someone much, much bigger, when I am butting up against my insurmountable problems. The  clash of those two perspectives – the stuck and the  bigger picture – is painful. But here we are  – as a not-Silas, imagining perhaps  ‘you could get over it’, but as Silas, just feeling ‘never get over it’. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘the feet,mechanical, go round.’

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

However, Marner does  gain something from his terrible loss, and that is the  kindness of his village neighbours.  It would be difficult to find a modern equivalent to this – maybe workmates’ kindness? For those of us in work, possibly, there can community at work. Maybe in a  street where people are largely unemployed and are also a relativity static population, so have the chance of knowing each other? But for many of us  – no. This wouldn’t happen. We’re not connected enough. Hence the growing UK epidemic of loneliness.

But for Silas, the feel of the village changes: people stop thinking him a witch and start thinking of him as ‘a poor mushed creatur’: and thus along with gifts of black pudding and pigs pettitoes,

Neighbours … showed a disposition not only to greet Silas and discuss his misfortune at some length when they encountered him in the village, but also to take the trouble of calling at his cottage and getting him to repeat all the details on the very spot; and then they would try to cheer him by saying, “Well, Master Marner, you’re no worse off nor other poor folks, after all; and if you was to be crippled, the parish ‘ud give you a ‘lowance.”

One of the neighbours we meet now is Mrs Dolly Winthrop – one of the greatest women in literature, and on a par for me with Paulina, the  powerful matriarchal force at the centre of The Winter’s Tale. Dolly is a do-er,  full of energy and  kindness:

..in all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience, so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning, which it was a constant problem with her to remove. Yet she had not the vixenish temper which is sometimes supposed to be a necessary condition of such habits: she was a very mild, patient woman, whose nature it was to seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life, and pasture her mind upon them.

Dolly is ‘eager for duties’, ( this is like Paulina,  faced with a mad and dangerous King, deciding he must be spoken to and resolving ‘He must be told on’t, and he shall. The office becomes a woman best: I’ll take it upon me.’) In the days when most women had no access to careers, women like Paulina and Dolly, who might be running NHS Trusts or Government Departments now, had to use their considerable energy in private life, in relationship management. George Eliot (like Shakespeare?) adores such women.

Before we go back to Silas  I want to notice the use of the verb ‘pasture’ at the end of the section above. We’ve already noticed natural-process metaphors of the seed/harvest type, but  ‘pasture’ is a strange one, isn’t it? It makes Dolly’s mind like a farm animal (for these are the animals that are put to pasture), and that makes Dolly like a workhorse, cow, beast of burden? Patient, mild, but working. Strong. And her mind, when her nature makes her ‘seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life’, gets to work on those sad and serious things, which is a great place for human mind to be.  It doesn’t feel a quick mind, it feels slow and steady, even ruminant. But strong and present. It will do a good job.

There’s a thought here, which I really don’t have time to write out carefully today, about this kind of ‘work’, a kind of work George Eliot herself was particularly good at: the application of intellect and heart to profound human problems.

Yesterday I spent several hours in a Design Team meeting at Calderstones, with a gender balance of three women and eleven men.  The men were architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, health and safety men, quantity surveyors… they were practical men who know about electrical cables and trenches,  bat droppings in roof spaces, loads on beams and lengths of ducting. I was suddenly aware that they were men operating, as it were,  a piece of machinery (the machine: the design/build meeting) which men have been operating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Groups of men like this designed the pyramids and put up stonehenge as well as most of the houses we’ve ever had, and I was aware of a culture of men, and the long history of that culture: men in their  structures and specific and hierarchical roles, they all knew where they were and what their bit of the job was, and they got a lot of stuff built. The women in the room were two of us Reader people, ‘the client’, and  the architectural assistant, and that made me think…

What were the women doing all those thousands of years while the men were holding design-build meetings and digging  trenches and  felling oak trees?  They were having babies and  hoeing turnips, looking after toddlers and making clay pots, running dairies and being prostitutes, nursing the sick, laying out the dead, picking  barley. But the boys are having design-build meetings and thinking about smoke escape routes, and drainage and value-engineering.  As Talking Heads sing,

The girls don’t want to play like that,
They just want to talk to the boys.
They just want to do what is in their hearts,
And the girls want to be with the girls.

And very powerful and naturally intelligent women, like George Eliot (aka Marian Evans) and Dolly Winthrop… what did they do with their brains back in the day  when women could not become structural engineers? Marian Evans  could cook a Harvest Home supper for 60 and bottle preserves with the best of them, and by night she used her brain, teaching herself,  as a  young woman, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian and complex mathematics at home from books. She was of a class that could buy books, and her father (a design-build man if ever there was one) recognised the brightness of his daughter, and gave her an account at the local bookshop and got her access to the library of his employer at Arbury Hall. But a Dolly Winthrop, with a such a brain, growing up in the peasant class in a rural village? Well, let us see what George Eliot makes of her.

But first, going back to the book, we turn again  to Silas, and see how he will take to Dolly, with her nature and her mind, coming into his life:

Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken. Left groping in darkness, with his prop utterly gone, Silas had inevitably a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without; and there was a slight stirring of expectation at the sight of his fellow-men, a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill. He opened the door wide to admit Dolly, but without otherwise returning her greeting than by moving the armchair a few inches as a sign that she was to sit down in it.

Interesting that before his loss Silas didn’t have any sense of dependence on the goodwill of fellow-men, but now  with nothing else to turn to, he has ‘a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill’.

Excellent. Silas is partially set up for some sort of help, and Dolly is primed to give it.

*My title today calls on James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Is it love? Yes it is.

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Red Clematis in a pot in the back garden

I wanted to write today about A.S. J. Tessimond’s quietly self-effacing poem, ‘Not Love, Perhaps’.

I couldn’t write yesterday, despite the day beginning very early  in a hotel room in a Norwich Premier Inn: I needed to do some other work things and sacrificed my reading and writing hour to expediency.

In the afternoon, not wanting to skip a day (got to keep practising) I started writing  this post on a cross-country Norwich-Liverpool train which made 24 stops (including  places I don’t usually get to travel through  like Ely, Grantham, Alfreton, Sheffield, Irlam and Widnes). The 5+ hour, journey, with  no wifi and no electric plug felt like the olden days of the 1980s and in the end, I stopped writing to enjoy the sight of England, and to have a long read of my book and a little sleep, and my salad box lunch and some Norwich raspberries and to think about Norwich and the  people I had met  all too briefly at the International Literature Showcase. This is what train journeys used to be like!

I was at the Showcase to give a talk about the work of The Reader and to listen to other people describe their work spreading the word. Terrific to start the day with a performance of her poetry by Sophia Walker, a woman of verbal felicity and punch, lit by rhythms of hip hop and Shakespeare.

I went on to read from Bleak House – the visit of Esther and co to the brickmaker’s cottage with grim Mrs Pardiggle, the evangelical missionary to the poor. It was good afterwards to be in conversation with a few people who said how relevant and fresh the Dickens was, how appalling to feel much is still the same.

Pop Up Projects were on next, and founder Dylan Calder gave a compelling account of the  change Pop Up is bringing about. I very much liked the idea that authors in the Schools Book Festival are not there to sell books nor simply read them but to talk to children about how they create books. If creativity is the answer to an over-developed western economy (and I say it is) then we have got to learn how to help children believe in and practice their own powers of creativity.

Before heading to the Cathedral Hostry – amazing HLF funded building – where the Showcase was taking place, I walked round Norwich between 8.00 and 9.00, a beautiful hot, quiet morning. This was my first visit this ancient Cathedral City, with some lovely things.

norwich

Plus, less lovely, and more standard,  before 9.00 am, plenty of people sleeping in shop doorways. About as many as I’d see in Liverpool, I think. One was a young clear-faced young man, pink-cheeked, blond-curled like a cherub, leaning against a wall sleeping upright, with his feet swathed in a bin bag. He looked under twenty. What are we going to do about that? Dickens, thou should’st be living at this hour, as Wordsworth said of Milton.

But  to the poem, which I read earlier in the week with a small group of people who work in the Social Enterprise and Storybarn teams at The Reader; ‘Not Love Perhaps’ by A.S.J. Tessimond. You’ll find the poem here.

Is it love? we asked, or is it a kind of friendship? Or is friendship a kind of love? We spoke of the tricky Hollywood version of love, ‘love that lays down it’s life…’  I’m not sure love would, said one of the group members, lay down his life for me. Oh yes, one of the group’s men asserted, especially if  there was a baby. Ok, so maybe that self-sacrificing love does exist, some of us conceded, but this is not  that:

Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,

Yesterday at ILS,  when I read Bleak House, I asked the audience to use their imaginations to make themselves become members of  Shared Reading groups – made-up personas, but made-up from real elements of many real people I have met.

The man who has had a  severe breakdown, the woman whose children have abandoned her, the person who lost their job, someone living with a severe and chronic illness, the recovering addict, the woman who has been a victim of violent abuse since childhood… imagine you are that person, I asked, sketching personas. Choose a character, be Bill, be Susan and imagine them,  think their thoughts, feel their feelings as I read.

I didn’t ask my audience to speak aloud so I don’t know if they did adopt any of those fictionalised personas.  But reading the scene in the brickmaker’s cottage, I stopped at the moment where Jenny  covers her bruised black eye so her baby might not see it:

…as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire, to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before, that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill-treatment, from the poor little child.

Imagine you are Susan, I asked my colleagues in the audience, badly abused since early childhood. Read this as Susan, whose children were taken into Care to protect them from  the same abuse. Imagine reading those words as Susan and remembering the number of times your children have seen you bruised and how you didn’t want them to see you…

That moment in a shared reading group where Susan may or not choose to share her experience aloud is one of the key contributors to the connective power of the experience. People are feeling,  sometimes talking, sharing, sometimes in silence, the same deep experiences. This is not love, perhaps…

But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:
Something perhaps especially our own.
A need at times to be together and talk
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places
And meet more easily nightmare faces.

In this week’s staff reading group we talked about the fact that having a good social network helps people survive illness, trauma. And yesterday morning  at my early breakfast in a Norwich café, I read that by 2030, 3m. people will be suffering  chronic loneliness in the UK. We need real time face to face networks in which people can relearn their close human connections.

There’s nothing forced here. I spoke about the fact that people do not have to speak in Shared Reading. In one of my early groups one woman did not speak, making no  verbal contribution to the group, for over a year.  We offer an opportunity and then we wait. And if we wait without pressure, the possibility of becoming an active speaker will, more often than not, come: this poem gives words to the necessity behind that common occurance.

A need at times of each for each
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

In our staff group we stayed on the thought of ‘each for each’ for a while, noticing how it was both personal and yet bigger than personal. Is the word ‘person’ elided? Does ‘each for each’  imply  ‘a need at times of each (person ) for each (other person)’ Or is ‘each of us’ implied? We didn’t stop to notice of those little bits of gristly connective ‘of each for each’  the of and the for doing something extraordinary in a kind of giving and taking – (and is there an echo of  Marx’s famous slogan there? It seems to echo so in my mind.)

The need, poet concludes is ‘direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech’. We considered the physicality of throat and tongue – the way they must move muscularly to get language up and out. Do they need speech, rather than create it?

Is our need for each other in that sense primal, unignorable? And if so, what are we going to do about the boy on the street outside the bank in Norwich, and what about the 3 million lonely people?

Tessimond’s poem or Bleak House, shared with another reader, can help.

The Reader seeks volunteers to run Shared Reading groups. Our Read to Lead programme will help you get started.

For some Reader Leaders, Read to Lead courses and support are paid for by their place of  work, others pay out of their own money, and some, who might be very good at it,  don’t have an employer and can’t afford to pay for themselves.

We want to develop 20,000 groups over the next five years.If you can’t run a Shared Reading group yourself, you might consider making a donation which would help someone else to do so.

It costs £900 to train and support a volunteer for two years. Contact me if you can help.

On The Darkling Plain with Matthew Arnold

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The Old Bath and  Clematis ‘Warszawska Nike’

This morning, continuing my journey through The Oxford Book of English Verse, I stopped at Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I’ve not read for five, ten, maybe more, years. When I saw it, I thought, another angry poem. Clearly, I am  looking for them.

But most angry poems won’t do for me – they are trite, warmongering, simple. I want to experience complexity of thought, not simple anger: I’ve got enough of that. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to Silas Marner for that reason: I love the way George Eliot unpicks complex human situations and lays all the parts out for us to see and feel and understand.

And, looking again, a second ‘but’: it is not an angry poem. It is sad, and withdrawing from the world. Read it aloud, dear readers, and read it slowly.

Dover Beach
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Here we have two people in a room overlooking the Channel on what seems a lovely summer night.  One says to the other, ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!’ but as they speak they note something else:

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Have you heard that slow, turning cadence ?  There’s a rhythm of sadness to it for me when I walk on the beach at a full tide, but I don’t know how much that is connected to this poem – did I learn to think that about beach-noise froim Matthew Arnold? Or maybe that ‘note of sadness’ existed quite aside from the poem?

As I remember Matthew Arnold,  Matthew Arnold, hearing the same sound, remembers Sophocles:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

I don’t know what in Sophocles Matthew Arnold is referring to. I could look it up and might do so, in case someone in my reading group wanted to know.  But more likely, someone in my reading group might well have never have heard of Sophocles.  Never perhaps heard of the Aegean.  So I might want to be ready to ask if anyone in the group  could explain those words to the everyone else. And if I had looked up the reference, I’d keep it in reserve, until asked. And then I’d want to say ‘I looked it up.’ Why?

Because facts are nothing in literature, in Shared Reading. This is not chemistry, this is not engineering. Facts often get in the way, and give inexperienced readers the feeling that there is stuff to learn and that  they are ignorant. That feeling stops people engaging with their whole hearts with the poem itself.  Be kind but bold, we say at The Reader. Bold enough to bring a poem like ‘Dover Beach’ to your reading group, kind enough to improvise ways to share its content with other people. You don’t need the facts to understand the poem, because Matthew Arnold here gives us everything we need to know:

Someone, somewhere else, long ago heard this and thought he heard  the ebb and flow of human misery. Now we have the same experience, with a different thought,  in a different time and place.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

This stanza is particular to Matthew Arnold’s own time and place, and a group would have to stop here and think about what ‘the sea of faith’ might have meant to the writer. As a Reader Leader, I might also want to know something, some fact, about that – though I might not need to  talk about it.

Some facts: The poem was written in 1851. The literal truth of Christianity was under attack from liberal intellectual thinkers and from science – Lyell’s Principles of Geology had been around since the 1830s, and the argument for the world not having been created in six days was beginning to be widely accepted. Origin of Species was published in 1859. The French naturalist Lamarck  had introduced the idea that there might be a connection between humans and orangutans… and George Eliot writing under her own original name,  Marian Evans, had published her translation of Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which made Jesus a historical rather than a  Biblical figurein 1846.  Even as he wrote, the status of  Christianity, which might have seemed so permanent, was under attack, was changing, was perhaps, to use Matthew Arnold’s word, ‘withdrawing’.

But it is not the fact I am interested in here. It’s the feeling of the poetry:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

What do I feel? Loss, loss, loss. If things in the world are being lost, stripped away, if old beliefs and comforts are removed… what’s left? Well, says Matthew Arnold, there is still personal love. There is still us, in this room.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But that sense of  a private relationship being able to carry you through… I don’t know, it seems a genuine plea, for a genuine love, yet  it feels overwhelmed by what is outside the window. But it remains true that when the world explodes for me, close family and close friends hold it/me together. So, yes, a personal love can and does make a difference. But the world, oh, the world…

Of course, the worse it is out there, the more need we have of something, someone, in here. We might talk about love, but we’d also want to talk about friendship – and a poem I might want to go on to with my group would be  Tessimond’s ‘Not Love, Perhaps’. I’ll read it tomorrow.

But to go back to the poem: what’s happening between these two at the window is undermined by what is out there, and so we come to some of the most painful lines in poetry:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

When I am in the line ‘like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new’  I believe it.

And even as I rise to the surface and come out of the line, I do believe in such moments of possibility.  I have to. But when I stop to give a couple of quid to the homeless girl outside the British Library, her face a mass of sores, she’s a glue-sniffer, she looks sixty and is probably twenty-three, her eyes are pleading and lost, she’s come from Care and needs to come and live in my house and be cared for by me but  when I stop there and try to imagine the cost I  personally cannot pay to fix this girl’s life, then I feel  that neither I nor world really does have the possibility of  ‘joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’. I give her fiver and hurry away, knowing she’ll spend it on drugs. As I head to Euston for the 19.07, I’m asking myself and not for the first time, should I leave The Reader and go to work in a homeless charity?

I move, as the lines do, between those two sets of feelings.

I think of the people, families, children, dying in  Grenfell Tower. The people who died or were injured on Westminster Bridge, at Borough Market, at Finsbury Park Mosque. I think of the power of personal feelings of failure or disconnect, and the  effect of those broken feelings on the world. People do bad things. On a different level, I think of  the disjunct between personal love and public responsibility. People do bad things.

I imagine myself making  bad decisions and ask myself, what would make a difference to the way I made those decisions?

And I end, in 2017,  where Matthew Arnold ended, in 1851:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Hard reading today. Thank you for sticking with me.
For a different take on Dover Beach, the poet Carol Rumens offers her reading of this great poem here.

‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know…’

clematis rouge
Albertine going over, Clematis coming out, 20 June
England, in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

After writing here only  a couple of weeks ago that I  never want to read Shelley, I found myself stopping at this poem this morning.  I don’t think I’ve read it since I was an undergraduate and can’t remember reading it at all, yet it is one of those poems that has passed into my consciousness – I seem to know it. Yet the anger arrested me, perhaps because I already have it in me. Not many poems are angry. Or rather, I do not read many angry poems. Yesterday I read a lot of poems by Denise Levertov that were angry about the Vietnam war. Most war poems are angry. For me, poems about social injustice do not seem to work, they become trite, you get propaganda or party lines.  But today Shelley’s spitting anger seems  the right feeling.

Like many people I cannot get the Grenfell Tower tragedy out of my head.  I recommend listening  to Sir Michael Marmot on  yesterday’s Radio 4 Start The Week. Marmot talks about  life expectancy in Kensington: the difference between the wealthy south of  the borough and the impoverished north is 14 years for men. The average income for the borough is  £125,000 but for  half of the  population it is below £35,000. All kinds of problems, social, physical, and mental follow these stats. Marmot says, just because we have the NHS offering treatment doesn’t mean that is the right way to go about things. In the case of a fire, we’d say, not we have to treat the results of fire, but we have to prevent fires. The same is true for heart attacks and mental illness.

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tvj71#play    (from about 12 minutes in)

Yes, I want a new world. I believe that new world starts with education, not simply for the poor children of Kensington, but also for the apparently well-educated people who make the decisions about the £5000 saving on the flammable tower coverings. The Marmot Review  (2010) called for us to act in 6 domains simultaneously in order to  help close the inequalities gap. Those domains are

1. giving every child the best start in life

2. enabling all children, young people and adults to maximize their capabilities through education and lifelong learning and have control over their lives

3. creating fair employment and good work for all

4. ensuring a healthy standard of living for all

5. creating and developing sustainable places and communities

6. strengthening the role and impact of ill-health prevention.

What does the poem say? It says everything’s broken, the instituitions (state, people, army , church,  parliament)  it’s all disgusting, corrupt, dead. It says I’m sick of it all.  It says, something may happen to change that, some glorious phantom may burst forth… but, at this point I stop reading.  I don’t believe in that phantom. (And perhaps neither does Shelley, otherwise, why call it a phantom?)

So, back to work. I’m working on the second  (and the fifth, and the sixth) of Marmot’s recommendations and must get back to it.

 

 

 

Silas Marner Day 18 : Acting on the Better Will

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Lilies golden light 19 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter IX, and first notice how carefully I need to read this account of Squire Cass. It would be easy to read what you think is there rather than what George Eliot really wants us to see. The Squire is

a tall, stout man of sixty, with a face in which the knit brow and rather hard glance seemed contradicted by the slack and feeble mouth. His person showed marks of habitual neglect, his dress was slovenly; and yet there was something in the presence of the old Squire distinguishable from that of the ordinary farmers in the parish, who were perhaps every whit as refined as he, but, having slouched their way through life with a consciousness of being in the vicinity of their “betters”, wanted that self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage which belonged to a man who thought of superiors as remote existences with whom he had personally little more to do than with America or the stars. The Squire had been used to parish homage all his life, used to the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best; and as he never associated with any gentry higher than himself, his opinion was not disturbed by comparison.

My first glance reading seemed to say – ‘there was something about him’ despite his slovenly dress etc. But when I reread I saw that really there was nothing about him except ‘self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage’. I stopped for a while to think about this. The ordinary farmers were just as ‘good’ as Cass – ‘every whit as refined as he’, which is a joke because he is not  very refined at all, and neither are the other farmers… it’s just that Cass comes with a self-belief grown by  generations of  entitlement –  ‘the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best’. And it’s a hierarchy that stops at himself, too, because Cass never meets anyone above him … so he is always top dog in his own world. That’s what’s coming in the room with him, despite his slovenly clothes and ‘slack and feeble mouth’.

On I read…Squire Cass gets annoyed about the loss of the horse, loss of the money, and berates himself for being ‘too good a  father.’

Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.

I wonder where the thought ‘he was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments’ comes from? Not from Godfrey Cass himself,  from George Eliot then, from the narrator of this story. The George Eliot voice is also inside Godfrey, knowing his thoughts, as well as judging him from a more external point of view. So the sentence continues  ‘but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness’. Not only that, he had ‘a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will’. This is really interesting to me because I am interested in learning how people change. The language here, of not knowing, but somehow sensing or feeling or knowing vaguely, points to a  kind of unknown knowledge that might be in a person – a clue to being happier?  Because the morality here – ‘errant weakness/better will’ – is not morality for its own sake. Godfrey Cass is not a happy man. Being good might be good for him.

Godfrey left the room, hardly knowing whether he were more relieved by the sense that the interview was ended without having made any change in his position, or more uneasy that he had entangled himself still further in prevarication and deceit. What had passed about his proposing to Nancy had raised a new alarm, lest by some after-dinner words of his father’s to Mr. Lammeter he should be thrown into the embarrassment of being obliged absolutely to decline her when she seemed to be within his reach. He fled to his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences– perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence. And in this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called specially old-fashioned. Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in. Let even a polished man of these days get into a position he is ashamed to avow, and his mind will be bent on all the possible issues that may deliver him from the calculable results of that position. Let him live outside his income, or shirk the resolute honest work that brings wages, and he will presently find himself dreaming of a possible benefactor, a possible simpleton who may be cajoled into using his interest, a possible state of mind in some possible person not yet forthcoming. Let him neglect the responsibilities of his office, and he will inevitably anchor himself on the chance that the thing left undone may turn out not to be of the supposed importance. Let him betray his friend’s confidence, and he will adore that same cunning complexity called Chance, which gives him the hope that his friend will never know. Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.

Interesting that chance is so set up against law – any law? ‘Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’ is the difference about sticking true to some belief, not so much what the belief is? But the ultimate law for George Eliot here, is the law of consequences in human action,’the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.’

In the religion of chance there is no such law – one hopes for a lucky break. But in the religion of consequences, you know that if you do x, then y will follow.  The sense of the  consequence following – pursuing  – Godfrey is getting a bit frightening. Is his sense of self-worth strong enough to make him take action?

Thinking of the way Godfrey has been brought up by Squire Cass, partly bullied, partly over-indulged. Thinking of the potential good that there might be in Godfrey and which he himself senses.  After all, many men would not have married the alcoholic woman he (presumably) got pregnant. He married her out of ‘compunction’.  That compunction may be a form of  weakness and an attempt to halt the process whereby ‘the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’. Compunction is an  interesting word –  being sharply pricked  – being hurt by remorse… I wonder what  a person like Godfrey, with some sense of  ‘could do better’ – can do to change? and is that going to be possible?  What would need to be in place? Is the pain of compunction what is needed,  or the discipline he somehow vaguely longs for but cannot self-supply?  How is he going to shore up his ‘better will’?

Often we need outside help, new habits, a voice over the shoulder helping us create those new habits…I’m wondering about Miss Nancy Lammeter, could she be the discipline Godfrey needs? … But then, Godfrey is already  married!

 

Lilies

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Madonna lilies have made it into flower, despite the winds and weather, 16 June

Thinking about poems as puzzles/unexploded bombs and the pleasure I used to have, in the early days of my reading life, of simply cracking what seemed to me the code, which yesterday I called ‘getting it’. The process starts from ‘don’t get it!’ which – at school, college and university – always used to feel angry, as if I was being deliberately excluded from the meaning. Then is goes on to working through the poem line by line, bit by bit, until some kind of understanding is arrived it. Then ‘I get it!’ One of the first poems I remember having this experience with was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’.

It was in an ‘A’ level literature class at Liverpool Community College, with Ken Moss, Head of English, a great teacher. I don’t recall if this was the first poem he brought us for Practical Criticism but it may have been the first one that really got me.

What is that feeling of being outside the text? I remember it not only from poems and  other works of literature I found hard as a student, but also from childhood when trying to read something  beyond me – Our Mutual Friend, say, at the age of  eight or nine, which I just couldn’t understand, though I could read. It was too hard. Perhaps,  although I could read the words, I couldn’t think the thoughts?

Sometimes when we look at poem we aren’t reading it, we’re scanning. The scan happens and your brain computes: I can’t take all this in. A resistance is set up, you stop trying. The poem moves away. There’s a distance. For me there is then a period of re-gathering, I have to read the poem aloud, and I have to go very slowly, not ‘deconstructing’, but reconstructing! I build a little unit of meaning  and then build the next. When I look back now to Sonnet 94, it feels far-off and meaningless at first. I have to reignite my sense of it by slow reading, andI’m looking for tonal clues as I read the first time – what’s it about?

Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

There’s an odd mix of  tone –  whoever is referred to as ‘they’ – do I trust them? At first it seems as though I should because they will do no harm, but later I see they are ‘as stone,/
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ – that doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to do with. So why do they ‘inherit heaven’s graces?’ and – actually- what does that mean? These people are ‘the lords and owners of their faces’. Are we talking about control here?

I’m aware all the time I’m tussling with the opening lines that there is the strong couplet at the end and I am heading towards it –

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies, as you can see from today’s photograph, are really very lovely looking things. And they smell gorgeous, until they ‘fester’ when the odour becomes rank. Are we talking about people who look good but may not be? I read again:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;

Some kinds of people (‘they’) have power and don’t use it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing but I wonder if it makes any difference what I think about it – Shakespeare’s describing something, a kind of person. Perhaps one person? (Various things are known about the Sonnets, and all that can easily be discovered, but for me principally, a key fact is that this one of a longer run of poems and they have  connections between them – it doesn’t quite stand alone. You might want to bring the Sonnets that go before and after along too…)

You have to ask, what state is the writer in?

Say I said, in modern English it means something like – some people have power but wont use it, look good but are covered over, hiding their real feelings, people who make me feel powerful feelings but feel nothing themselves, those people, yep! they are the lucky ones, they  having blessings showered on them… Shakespeare seems in a bad way, liking or loving or attracted to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and yet for Shakespeare  that’s not just felt as rejection, but as a kind of weird – slightly bitter? – honouring. Cyncical, bitter?

The second part seems angry or even in someway threatening. Perhaps stomping about ranting, perhaps worrying in a corner. Is something wrong with this person who uses his/her face as a mask?  The summer’s flower doesn’t seem to know what it is doing – to itself it ‘only live and die’ – whereas to everything round it – the summer – it is ‘sweet’. Do people like this know what they are doing to other people? The gorgeous who don’t acknoledge the effect their gorgousness has on others…And if they don’t know what they are, and what they might do, might they do something bad?

We get to ‘deeds’ in the end.  Looks, outward appearances, and in the end, what is done.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Now I notice that the verb ‘do’ is in the first line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,’… in fact the word ‘do’ appears four times in the first two lines!

But I am out of time, must dash… what a weird poem. Makes me want to read the Sonnets again.