Once contraception became reliable, all human life changed – and what’s that got to do with Poetry and Social Enterprise?

grass in japanese gdn.jpg
Some sort of ornamental grass living life to full just outside the Japanese Garden at Calderstones, 17 October

Yesterday I went off on one, in a mild way, I hope, about women, woman, womanliness, being female, making a female shape in a world that has been, until very recently, rather male. I was asking myself if Shared Reading was a thing that a woman would make in the world, as opposed to say rugby football, which I bet was invented by a man or men. I was being a bit nervous of my own line of thought  because some women love rugby and some men love Shared Reading  and some women and men love both rugby and Shared Reading. I don’t think huge generalisations are generally helpful,  as humans are more varied and individual than such generalisations allow. I ought to be connecting this to  my reading of  Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, but my morning reading hour is not long enough for that.

Why did I start thinking about this?  First, I was thinking about the Women in Social Enterprise 100 (WISE 100) and  about the disparity between number of women leaders in normal life (not many)  and in the Social Enterprise sector (many). Then I started to wonder whether Shared Reading was a ‘female’ product – and if so why?

I don’t think feelings are the province solely of women – feelings are a key piece of  human equipment for living, like lips or lungs.  Because  of the way we’ve split human survival work up,  in general, men have gone more for action and women for relationship/emotional mapping/support though this generalisation of the female/male split  is belied by exceptions such as women warriors and  male contemplative monks. But that was in the millennia  before birth control:  once contraception became reliable and widespread, all human life changed.

Poetry has always been a place where exceptions find a home –  from Sappho to Sharon Olds, women have found a place for strong voices there, and men have found a place for feeling.

This poem by Matthew Arnold is a key text for Shared Reading because it holds a massive underlying truth: whatever we look like on the surface, there is something else in us, out of sight. Sometimes we don’t know what that is, where it is, or why it is making us weep.

If I was taking this to a Shared Reading group, I’d set aside the whole session, maybe two sessions for it. I’d read the whole poem through, telling people to just go with it without understanding it all and just to try to get the sense of the different movements of the poem in the first instance.

So, a read through:

The Buried Life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Now I’d be asking my group to go back to the beginning and to try to situate it – how did this poem get started? What was happening? Where did it come from? Where are we? If we were making a film of this poem, what wold the scene look like, where is it and who is  there?

Read the opening again:

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

People will suggest various readings but someone in any group will begin to see this as a pair of lovers, sham-arguing or teasing each other. Encourage that person! Yes, it’s just light-hearted banter:

 

and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!

Why, I wonder (and in my group, I’d be wondering this aloud)  does the pronoun switch between the plural (‘our’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’) and the singular (‘mine’, ‘I’, ‘thy’ ,’thy’,’thy’,’thy’) so much?

What would it be like to feel be using those pronouns – you, me, us –  in a conversation  where we were  massively distressed?

So many questions have to be asked to get the poem into our imaginations – what is a ‘nameless sadness’ – what  does it feel like? Why or how does it stroke so suddenly?The poem gets serious very suddenly. We’re in light loving play chat and then we’re out of our depth, and drowning, in that nameless sadness. And the fact there is still the possibility of light heartedness doesn’t help. That experience exists elsewhere and Matthew Arnold seems almost angry as he acknowledges, yes, it is possible to laugh it off:

Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!

To anyone who has been depressed ( funny word – we experience it now as if it were now a medical condition, like Chicken Pox, but it is a word about feeling: to be pressed down) to anyone who has been pressed down by a sad nameless feeling, the poem will be a jarring remembrance of a painful experience. For some readers it is liberating to find someone else getting the experience into words.

This first movement, section, stanza, ends with Arnold turning to his beloved and looking into her eyes in order to ‘read there, love! thy inmost soul’.  It is as if he hopes to read some message of hope or understanding or any match of any sort: are we connected? Do you know me? They gaze.

Now we get the break in the stanza, a space between the verses (what’s happening now in the room? He is sitting on the couch staring into her eyes, her face, she’s looking back but  nothing’s happening, he can’t find it, whatever it is… ) the  white space between the stanzas comes to an end, and

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
Failure.

No amount of someone loving you will reach that place where feeling exerts its power. Can we get feelings into words? Even lovers – the closest relationship humans  probably have – cannot jump the gap.

I ask myself  what is the word ‘indeed’ doing there? I read the four lines again to feel if it has a place in the rhythm.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?

As I read, I feel the word ‘even’ is linked to the ‘indeed’ in some way.  The first of these four lines is shorter than those which follow. I start to look at the poem’s metre. The lines seem to  alternate – not in a fixed pattern between lines with five stresses and lines with four. Let’s look back to the beginning:

Where  /  = a strong beat and  –  = a less strong beat
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
/           /           –     /       –      /       –       /          –        /
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
/       /        –        /          –       /        –       /

Metre is a funny thing to talk about in Shared Reading because it’s technical, like talking about 4/4 time in music when you’ve been listening to The Beatles.  It’s not the normal  conversation you’d have but nevertheless, 4/4 time is  there and may be worth noticing. So with poetry,  metre underpins and makes meaning.  It’s worth noticing even if you don’t understand anything about it.  Try tapping.  Are some of the taps strong and others less strong? In the lines above I felt that  both ‘light’ and ‘flows’ were strong taps, whereas  ‘our’ didn’t seem so.   There’s  no law about this, you have to feel it in your body.  That can be hard to do at first, but it’s (call me  weird) good fun.

More to say on what metre does the meaning, but that’s for tomorrow. I’ve gone over my time.

(A good book for this stuff, which I’ve had since it came out in 1996 is John Lennard’s  The Poetry Handbook. Looks like it is expensive and hard to come by secondhand,  but worth seeking out. )

 

2 thoughts on “Once contraception became reliable, all human life changed – and what’s that got to do with Poetry and Social Enterprise?

  1. Chris Lines October 19, 2017 / 12:23 pm

    Hi Jane
    Matthew Arnold has link to Liverpool – home of The Reader – as he died in the City in 1888, suffering a heart attack. Matthew Arnold School in Dingle is named after him – probably not so much in his role as poet but that of a school inspector!

  2. drjanedavis October 24, 2017 / 5:34 am

    Thanks Chris, yes I believe he had the heart attack at the bottom of Park Road, near Toxteth Chapel. Wonder if he knew the McIver family at Calderstones or came to dinner there on his school inspecting visits? I’d love to know who did, among the city’s visiting dignitaries, to come to visit!

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