Truth is great and what else matters? What to read in a Shared Reading group

Oleander shivering on the back step, 1 August

Yesterday I was reading this poem from Coventry Patmore’s :

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.

And had  got as far as the last four lines. Yesterday I’d finished:

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’.

Starting again here, now, today I go back to that thought about children/work.

I realised overnight that I was thinking about children here because the only other poem of Coventry Patmore I’ve read is The Toys  – a poem about making a mistake as a parent and suffering for your temper after the child has gone to sleep. Perhaps that sense of his fatherhood was unconsciously in my mind when I was  wondering about what kind of thing he had walked away from.

It’s a strange feeling isn’t it, contemplating the world without ‘me’ in it? Which is, I think, what he has been doing and partly where the poem comes from. Patmore goes on to imagine the world’s ‘work’ – I ask myself as I read, what is that?  The course of human business? Mammon? If so, that leads me back to ‘the lie shall rot.’ Is that the one big lie we’re all involved in:  that what we  do matters? I don’t think that is quite right, but not sure it is completely wrong, either. I’m leaving it there while I go on to the next two lines:

The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

There’s a division between  human concerns and  bigger-than-human truth.  The truth (like the lie, a single, particular thing) ‘shall prevail’.  My understanding of grammar is poor, so I looked ‘shall’ up, not so much for its definition  – I think  it is a future form of the verb ‘be’  – as to understand  what it does as a part of speech.

‘Shall’ is a way of creating the future tense and is distinguished from  – the more commonly used – ‘will’. The key differentiator is that ‘shall’ does not indicate and desire or command, whereas  ‘will’ does. ‘Shall’ is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Which well  fits with the overall meaning here.

I’m now noticing, for the first time, the word ‘rot’ here.

It’s an organic, matter-based word.  It’s what happens to bodies after death. ‘The lie’, then, may be to do with the human world, partly geophysical – it will all go, in the end , won’t it? – but also partly everything we have created or invented or made – the world of philosophy,  the world of banking, the world of  public reputation. It will all rot…so our busy commitment to it, is that the lie?

I’m wondering now if  this poem about two kinds of belief about what the world is? They have clashed together somehow in the poet and forced this –  angry, disappointed, resolved ? – poem out. One is a materialist and human-centred view, apparently, but not actually,  purposeful(the huge town set in opposition to the natural movement of the tide, ‘purposeful, glad’). The other is something else.  It is not defined. It doesn’t get a mention, other than as ‘The truth is great’.

I wonder, on rereading the last line, ‘when none cares whether it prevail or not’, whether this was in fact the origin impulse for the poem’s creation. Did someone, did Patmore, care about whether truth prevailed in a specific instance?  Did he suffer  the fact that someone else did not care?

I imagine a story behind the poem… this is a way in which  I would  extend discussion in a Shared Reading group, to help  get the group more deeply into the  poem rather than rest on the surface.

What’s the story?  Someone did not care about the truth. Someone’s not caring about the truth affected Coventry Patmore’s ability to do his job – could have been him, himself, cold have been someone else. He walks out to get away from it.  Up the cliffs, perspective, smallness of human. Well, truth exists aside from everything human, he feels, as he looks at the  landscape, the ocean, the aeons.  Our pettiness won’t, matter, doesn’t matter now.

I’d read this poem again now, in my group, to give us all a chance to  listen to it and read it, with whatever thoughts we’ve assembled amongst us, in our heads.

I don’t end up feeling it is an abnegating poem. It feels more like a rest and a breath – and a re-assertion: truth is great.  I’ve just noticed, as I run out of time, that the word great appears twice – first at line 2, ‘great repose’. But time’s up.

Maybe tomorrow,  reread The Toys.





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