True or False? (with a good picture of my heroine, Marilynne Robinson, devotee of the truer life)

2011-05-18 12.31.02 HDR
Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.

Another poem I’ve not read before, today by Henry Vaughan, a wonderfully visionary poet who is not afraid to  tell his own experience in the boldest of strokes (‘I saw eternity the other night/Like a great ring of pure and endless night’).

How I choose: I’m looking for something that matches something in me. I don’t necessarily know what that thing is…sometimes it is a feeling that has not yet come into words. Sometimes I don’t want to put it into words, sometimes simply cannot. I read through the book and start poems, and it is lovely to recognise and sometimes reread old favourites (in the case of Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’, ‘Peace’, ‘They are all gone into the world of light’ ‘The World’, ‘The Waterfall’.) But I am looking, if possible, for poems I don’t yet know, and for something that touches, matches a thought or  feeling I have. Today I found it in this poem.

Quickness

False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

Thou art a moon-like toil, a blind
Self-posing state,
A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without eternity.

Thou art a toilsome mole, or less;
A moving mist;
But life is what none can express:
A quickness which my God hath kissed.

I read it through quickly and feel a connection – true or false, yes, recognise that – then reread, again quickly,  trying to get the whole thing, the overview. Two kinds of being – the true and the false, both experienced by a human, both going by the same name, ‘life’. Yes, I know this.

‘False life’ Vaughan begins, as if he had just woken up and stopped mid-track to realise, ‘this is  wrong!’. I have to look up ‘foil’ because although I think I know what it means, suddenly in this context, I am not sure that I do.

False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?

Foil = defeat, prevent, comes from Old French ‘fouler’ trample down , Middle English, ‘foil’ trample. So the false life is the thing that prevents or stops the true life, and is active in defeating it. I’d read ‘foil’ as a kind deflecting shield, but it’s more than that,  it is an active agent against the true. And feels like something reared up in your path, something that you can’t get round. ‘When/wilt thou be gone?’ And it is both inside and out:

Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

The ‘foul deception’ seems both to deceive ‘all men/that would not have the true come on’ and to be the thing ‘all men’ do. This is really interesting! All such men create this foul deception to prevent truth coming on, but it also deceives them.

Do we allow ourselves to be deceived when we don’t want to know something – of course! (speaking for myself alone here, obviously) Do we create that deception in ourselves? You bet we do. I love this little knot of deception, self-deception, Vaughan has created, cleverly, to match our real experience.

Ok, here is what ‘false life’ feels like:

Thou art a moon-like toil, a blind
Self-posing state,
A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

Moon because moonlight is a mirror of the real light of the sun, so the moon is pale reflection of something else. But ‘toil’? Oh, I’m really enjoying this – it is  so  knotty, such surprising syntactical formulation. ‘Toil’?  I’m thinking of the physical heft of getting yourself up to roll around the sky reflecting the sun, but also , the hard business of the bits of life I don’t want to do (toiling at the admin, the greasy washing up left from night before, the intractable HR issues, the distresses, the inflating of car tyres on the very sleety day, the necessity of telling small children off, working on a weekend when you want to be in the garden, having to have to do with people you don’t like: ‘toil’). Is being false, living falsely, not being one’s most true self, also such toil and am I even aware of it?

I’m not sure what he means by ‘a blind/self posing state’ – maybe ‘posing’ is short for ‘imposing’? Maybe it means striking a pose? (But also blindly,  as if stupidly self unknown). And then it is even less – just mess and noise:

A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

So that’s what it is like when it is false – not right, unquick. When I am just going through some kind of false motion. Like a very noisy lot of unreal shouting, ‘a mere tempestuous debate’. I love the  putting together of ‘tempestuous’ (which grows out of the line before, ‘waves and wind’), with ‘debate’  – just talk, showy-off talk, bluster. Parts of life feel like this. But look at Marilynne Robinson in the picture above – feel the quiet?

Real life, as opposed to this  false banging-about stuff is both calm and permanent:

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

The tone is suddenly steadied, as if we have been translated into a different key, the key of G, full and happy and  complete. But soon I am mollified again:

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without eternity.

Agh! Time’s up  – have to leave this here until tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “True or False? (with a good picture of my heroine, Marilynne Robinson, devotee of the truer life)

  1. Jamie March 17, 2017 / 9:05 am

    Ah… this takes me back to 6th Form. My first memories of wrestling with deep poetry – I’d just discovered the metaphysical poets and I didn’t understand a bloody thing but I loved all of it. I remember the title of this poem, I have a slight sense that I remember some tone or feeling of it, but the words seem brand new. Love moments like this… and love the depths this poem is trying to dig to… and it also reminded me of Herbert’s ‘The Foil’:

    If we could see below
    The sphere of vertue, and each shining grace,
    As plainly as that above doth show ;
    This were the better skie, the brighter place.

    God hath made starres the foil
    To set off vertues ; griefs to set off sinning :
    Yet in this wretched world we toil,
    As if grief were not foul, nor vertue winning.

    • drjanedavis March 17, 2017 / 9:53 am

      There’s a Herbert I have not read! Thanks will do so

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