Back In The Swim

About  to jjump in, Perast, July 11

Hello, dear Readers. Normal service is resumed.

I wasn’t very well  – food poisoning – then it was the last week of work and there was a lot of stuff to finish, and then I was travelling to Newcastle for a conference and then it was the beginning of my holiday. During all that I lost my daily reading and writing practice. But now, here I am on holiday in Perast, Montenegro, wanting to start  to establish that routine again, and some others.

First of all , about Newcastle.  ‘Shared Futures’ was the title of the Conference – a conference of people involved in the discipline of  ‘English’. The Reader had been asked to present a session about the use of English Literature. I  have to say that the thought of re-entering world of academic English was not an easy one. It’s not just English, of course, it is academic life: I remember years ago talking to a colleague in the Engineering Department and  telling him how envious I was that  he had  a subject with such obvious practical use – he laughed and told me that ‘practical use’ was as looked down on in Engineering as it was in English: ‘the cleverest people are theoretical and they don’t want to get their hands dirty with the grubby reality of practical stuff’.

As I write I wonder can this really be true?  It’s a good twenty years since that conversation. Perhaps I have remembered it wrong? But I know I haven’t mis-remembered. That Professor of Engineering was a little embarrassed, was rueful, but was quite sure: you don’t get your hands dirty. Around the same time I read a prominent female academic, writing in a professional journal, arguing that it was right that a taxi driver shouldn’t be able understand what she  ‘does’ as a theoretical scholar of literature: no one would expect him to understand theoretical physics. Her subject was just as deep, she claimed, just as complex and abstract, as far from every day reality, with its own, necessarily, specialised language.  I think it was shortly after reading that article that I left the profession to found The Reader.

The practical problems of the world – surely they are our task and subject matter, and every subject should be ‘about’ them? And if you think you need a specialised language for literature, then read the essay  ‘The Loss of The University’ by the American farmer, poet and thinker, Wendell Berry.

So, it seemed a breakthrough to even be invited to ‘Shared Futures’, and wishing to share the future, I accepted the invitation and asked colleagues to nominate some  members of  Shared Reading groups who might want to come and talk about the practical reality of  literature in the world,  from their own experience. Evanna, Laura, Kevin, myself,  and Helen,  along with our colleagues from CRILS, Phil and Josie, braved that lion’s den together. Our audience – about 15-20 people, were invited to join us and we pushed the tables together so that we made a group.  We read Thomas Dekker’s poem ‘Sweet Content’.

Sweet Content

ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crispèd spring?
O sweet content!
Swim’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

More than most, this poem seems to set off class-based anxiety in readers. Is it inevitable that someone would think, here’s a rich person being patronising to the poor, and just because you are poor it doesn’t mean  you sleep well!  Whenever I’ve read this poem in a group someone always thinks this. Is it just the mention of  ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ that does that? As if  we hardly dare use the words without anxieties  beginning to crowd in and stop us reading?

The assumption – poet is a rich person, looking longingly at the simple happy lives of the poor – is no more than an assumption ( and look up Dekker’s life if you must, but really, it we shouldn’t need proof  on that point, we should recognise an assumption). As soon as you’ve made assumption you are no longer reading.

So let’s start again,  from the point of view that we know nothing about  the poet, and have only his words to think about.

ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!

As someone round that table in Newcastle pointed out, this is a question, not a statement. It is a question that asks: what is wealth?  Certainly golden slumbers – as  all insomniacs will testify –  are a kind of richesse.  I don’t think the poet thinks being poor is a charming relief from the anxiety of money – I think it knows what ‘poor’ is…

The word ‘yet’  does some big work in the balancing act of this poem, doesn’t it?

You are poor, yet…it’s a despite word. ‘Yet’ posits a counter, an ‘even so’, that sleeping well is  ‘golden’. O sweet content.  I feel that Dekker longs for golden slumbers, for sweet content. That  simple thing, sleep, as everyone knows at 2.55am, would make anyone ‘content’.

Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
O punishment!

Another question follows, with  the lovely patterning of another ‘yet’ in the mix.  And   again, the thought of ‘punishment’ seems to set off other anxieties in readers.  Who is punishing whom? And why? Is being rich bad? Who says so?

but is this about the nature of reality rather than  (our) attitudes to class/money? Is the actual real life experience of being ‘perplex’d’ by numbers in itself a punishment, just as  actual golden slumbers is actually sweet content? Everything seems to circle round to the balance-word, ‘yet’.

There is this, yet there is that.

Then there is the opposite, yet there is that.

You turn it one way and then you turn it another. ‘Yet’ allows the question to turn, a pivot-point. Things are not simply two dimensional, that word forces us to admit.

In lines five and six, it is hard to tell to whom Thomas Dekker is speaking. Is it one or both of the people questions previously?

Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?

Whoever this is, whatever their state of pocket and mind,  the laughter about totting money up is  the oppostie of vexation. Is this poem perhaps about states of mind as well of  states of wallet? What makes us rich?

But I must go to swim now.  Ah, sweet content. Back tomorrow.




3 thoughts on “Back In The Swim

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. July 11, 2017 / 9:23 am

    Hi Jane,
    glad you’re well again and enjoy your holiday you’ve worked hard for bit.

    Re the passage on academic life.

    “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.’
    Wendell Berry.

    Seems apt.

    Re contentment:
    prefer to be discontented and try to improve.

    Missed the blog BTW.

    • A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. July 11, 2017 / 9:24 am


      You worked hard for it.

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