Walk away and look back: some perspective from Coventry Patmore

Huge Cliffs overlooking

Perspective in Kotor Bay, July 2017

This morning marks my return to work after a three-week break.  Odd to have the back-to-school feeling at the end of July instead of the beginning of September!

I loved those September mornings during my  unhappy and unsatisfactory years at secondary school: sunny mornings with the  scents of  early autumn and the possibility of  starting again. And even now, in January and after a break like this, I love the feeling of a new start.

I woke before my alarm and came to my desk to read, wondering if I should set myself some reading task this year, rather than wandering all over the place as usual. So, a brief stock-take:

I’m reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog, usually at least once a week. Will continue – know it well, love rereading.

I’m reading some Denise Levertov, maybe a poem or so each month. Great to be meeting an author  whose work is relatively unknown to me. Will continue.

Have been reading in a dip in and out way in the Oxford Book of English Verse and will continue to do that.

Am recording everything I start reading (‘Just Started’) and writing ‘Just Finished’ about things I want to recommend.

But I want something else?

I’m aware of the need for more contemporary poetry here but  the need to clear copyright means I need to be organised in advance. Not sure I can manage that.

I wonder about the possibility of starting a long poem – The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Prelude. That would be good  for me as  a regular effort and  I miss those  works when not teaching them on the Reading in Practice MA

Also wondering about my own Anthology of things I love or poems that have built me… that could be a tag.

This morning I wanted to read an old poem I had not read before and leafed through some Emily Bronte, Tennyson and Browning and Clough mainly noting old  friends before coming to this poem by Coventry Patmore which I’m sure lots of people know, but which I think is new to me. It struck a note lingering since my time away and some of the feelings and thoughts arising out of reading Emerson’s Essays. The Latin title (truth is great) is a  glance at a quotation from the Apocrypha – the uncanonised books of the Bible – the truth is great and shall prevail.

I was thinking of Emerson writing about what a fisherman learns from the action of the sea. that seems the same kind of action that is taking place in Coventry Patmore as he writes.


Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I’m immediately bothered on my first reading by ‘the lie shall rot’. I don’t know which lie Patmore is talking about. But that’s not a good place to get into the poem! I tell myself to read it again. I read it again.

A second slow reading brings home to me the  clear sense of two halves of the poem –  the before ‘I sit me down’ and the after.  It’s as if the poem takes place at a point of balance, a fulcrum. At this point, ‘I sit me down’ , Coventry Patmore can see both before and after.

There seems to be a lot about perspective, relative size, point of view. First, the Latin title makes me  think – Latin, the classics, ancient thinking, old-time. Then  when I found it was a biblical or apocryphal quotation that time span seemed to open up even more. So, literally, big is truth, sets the scale of this very small poem. It’s like some kind of telescopic viewer! We  start big and shrink down:

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

On this spot, ‘here’,  we experience or  remember, or watch from a great  distance a huge scene, which seems to be set in a massive geographical perspective.  The bay looks little, is little. I imagine Scarborough, walking up out-of-town on the cliff paths to a point where you can look back and see the shape of the bay as part of the coast’s huger geography. Yes, it is ‘little’. but as someone who has just walked from the  huge town and in view of the ocean, I see ‘tumultuous life and great repose’, all at once, both of those apparently opposed  things. The view from here, of the  little bay offers me a chance to see it all at once.

I thought at first that the ‘tumultuous life and great repose’ was about the town, but realise now on a fourth reading that it is  the entire bay and everything in it, the town yes, but also the landscape and the seascape. it is everything we are going to see in the next few lines:

Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town

The ocean and the movement of the ocean, the height of the cliffs, the distance from/to the town and the hugeness of the town itself are all visible at once, from ‘here’.

I note the ocean is ‘ purposeless, glad ‘ – that these two words are jammed together inside the line.

I note there’s a sudden rhythmic relief in the next line ‘I sit me down.’I read it all again. I wonder if there’s a separate Biblical echo in ‘I sit me down’? (By the rivers of Babylon).

Feels like a long look round, a long gaze takes place – and if we were Emerson, we’d be thinking, yes, this is how nature teaches. And then we come to the thought:

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I wonder about the  piece of life that has been happening before the poem emerged, and which in some sense caused the poem to be born. Why is he out gazing at this huge view? what has he walked away from? What’s the mood?

In the line ‘for want of me the world’s course will not fail’ I might feel a straight forward estimation of reality: it’s just true, each of us is very small and hardly matter in the least to the big sweep.

But I am also thinking, is this an abnegation of responsibility? Could he be imagining a world without him in it, is he suicidal? is he merely frustrated? Has his work gone badly?

When I reread the lines, the ‘;me’ seems very small, very intimate. It’s a very private inner feeling. Is it like thinking  ‘I can’t fix all this?’ But the ‘want of me’  – he’s thinking of not being there. Will it make any difference if he is dead? No, he thinks, it won’t.

Funny thing to balance here between sanity and reality –  you can’t save the world! and abnegation of responsibility – if I go it won’t matter.

Now I reach the line that troubled me at the beginning: ‘when all its work is done, the lie shall rot’.  the pronoun, ‘its’, refers to  the world, or the world’s course,  to the great unfolding of time and history and the planet. Then, when that work is done, ‘the lie shall rot’. Seems like one bog, obvious lie. Just one of it  – ‘the lie’.

Could it be the lie about human value –  every life matters?  Could it be the lie about  the material work of humanity in the world – we’re doing all this, getting money, bringing our children up,  working – but  that’s not what it’s all about? I don’t know why I say ‘children’, because the word Coventry Patmore uses is ‘work’.

Yikes time is way up – I’m late! Will finish tomorrow.



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