Yesterday, among other things, I started reading The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. I could have started by giving you some facts about Matthew Arnold – his dates, or bits of history that might set a context for the poem or the man or his situation – MA was a depressive, MA lived at a time when faith in God was disintegrating, MA was unhappy at Oxford (I’ve just made that last one up).
None of that, true or untrue, would have made the reality of the poem stronger and actually, it would have taken away from the poem. One of the rules of Shared Reading is – Do Not Do Background. That’s substituting facts for direct experience: letting other people get your kicks for you
Of course rules need breaking sometimes, and I leave that to your judgement, but 97 times out of 100: no background, please!
Why? I can see there’s an argument for saying that biography, social context, facts about the type of mead people drank, or when glass windows were invented, Mums, Dads and siblings and the political system all feed in to whatever a writer can write… but most of it is irrelevant to the direct experience of the poem.
But the direct experience is what we sometimes want to avoid because direct is hard, like writing or doing your fifty lengths in the pool or teaching your kids discipline. I speak from personal experience. But after more than forty years of hard reading I am willing to risk the difficulty. I have a long backlog of practice that tells me the direct experience is worth having.
But I can clearly remember the feeling at school and as a university and post-grad student, of wanting to avoid true engagement with the poem. Of wanting to get round it or find a short-cut. I remember a feeling of dread and avoidance which was to do with facing the unknown, facing the task of creation, with only my own resources to get me through. That feeling of dread was to do with the work of it, having to make the huge effort of imagination and summon the will which is needed to bring the inert poem flat on the page back to life. Taking responsibility for that for act of re-creation.
The temptation to let someone else do that creative work for me was very strong because my confidence was under-developed. F.R. Leavis understands T.S. Eliot, I’d think, let him do the work and I’ll just say what he says. But this was me standing at the edge of the swimming bath hopping from one foot to another, afraid to jump in. The experience of reading a poem can’t be done for you, and no amount of knowing the water temperature or when the pool was constructed or why it was in fashion to have marbled tiles will make any difference: you’ve always got to get into the water if you want to swim. Talking about what ‘Victorians’ knew isn’t helpful. The poem is its own thing, existing in its own force-field, free of time, if it is still a working poem. More to say on this another day.
The Buried LifeLight 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! 5But 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, 10And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.Alas! is even love too weakTo unlock the heart, and let it speak?Are even lovers powerless to revealTo one another what indeed they feel? 15I knew the mass of men conceal’dTheir thoughts, for fear that if reveal’dThey would by other men be metWith blank indifference, or with blame reproved;I knew they lived and moved 20Trick’d in disguises, alien to the restOf men, and alien to themselves—and yetThe same heart beats in every human breast!But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumbOur hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb? 25Ah! well for us, if even we,Even for a moment, can get freeOur heart, and have our lips unchain’d;For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!Fate, which foresaw 30How 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 35His genuine self, and force him to obeyEven in his own despite his being’s law,Bade through the deep recesses of our breastThe unregarded river of our lifePursue with indiscernible flow its way; 40And that we should not seeThe buried stream, and seem to beEddying at large in blind uncertainty,Though driving on with it eternally.But often, in the world’s most crowded streets, 45But often, in the din of strife,There rises an unspeakable desireAfter the knowledge of our buried life;A thirst to spend our fire and restless forceIn tracking out our true, original course; 50A longing to inquireInto the mystery of this heart which beatsSo wild, so deep in us—to knowWhence our lives come and where they go.And many a man in his own breast then delves, 55But 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— 60Hardly had skill to utter one of allThe nameless feelings that course through our breast,But they course on for ever unexpress’d.And long we try in vain to speak and actOur hidden self, and what we say and do 65Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!And then we will no more be rack’dWith inward striving, and demandOf all the thousand nothings of the hourTheir stupefying power; 70Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,From the soul’s subterranean depth upborneAs from an infinitely distant land,Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey 75A melancholy into all our day.Only—but this is rare—When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,When, jaded with the rush and glareOf the interminable hours, 80Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,When our world-deafen’d earIs 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. 85The 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 seesThe meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze. 90And there arrives a lull in the hot raceWherein he doth for ever chaseThat flying and elusive shadow, rest.An air of coolness plays upon his face,And an unwonted calm pervades his breast. 95And then he thinks he knowsThe hills where his life rose,And the sea where it goes.
Yesterday we’d got to stanza two and had read up to line 15. We’d seen Matthew Arnold looking to his beloved;
Alas! is even love too weakTo unlock the heart, and let it speak?Are even lovers powerless to revealTo one another what indeed they feel? 15I knew the mass of men conceal’dTheir thoughts, for fear that if reveal’dThey would by other men be metWith blank indifference, or with blame reproved;I knew they lived and moved 20Trick’d in disguises, alien to the restOf men, and alien to themselves—and yetThe same heart beats in every human breast!
Yesterday, I’d got caught up with the words ‘even’ and ‘indeed’, and that had led me on to think about the poem’s rhythm. Now I’m looking also at the rhymes, which are plentiful but not always patterned. In this second stanza we start with rhyming couplets (two lines which rhyme, one coming straight after the other: weak/speak, reveal/feel, conceal’d/reveal’d).
Me: Rhyming couplets – what are they like?
(I don’t want to make a definitive statement here, I want you to feel the reality – get in the water and splash about the tell me what it feels like!).
You: They are strong.
Me: Yes I agree – Alas! is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart, and let it speak? – Can you say more? Why do they seem strong?
You: They kind of finish – they are rounded off. It’s as if the thought is completed.
Alas! is even love too weakTo unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Someone Else: Yes, completed in one way, but it’s a question and there isn’t an answer! So in another way, it’s not complete.
Me: Ok, so we’ve got a rhyming couplet where the rhymes are powerful and seem to bring a conclusion, yet we’ve also got a question…
Someone Else: Well two questions, actually
You: Both with rhyming couplets! Conclusion not concluded!
Someone else: Left hanging – and that’s the completeness of his thought though isn’t it – he thinks ‘even love can’t do it’, but they it’s like he adds, ‘can it?’
You: so the finish of the rhyme is undercut by the question mark?
Me: You’re doing that yourself now!
You: But no rhyme! this time!
Me: Shall we go on? Look at this…
I knew the mass of men conceal’dTheir thoughts, for fear that if reveal’dThey would by other men be metWith blank indifference, or with blame reproved;I knew they lived and moved 20Trick’d in disguises, alien to the restOf men, and alien to themselves—and yetThe same heart beats in every human breast!
You: Hey up, Jane we’re out of time
Me: Oh blast! More tomorrow. Going for a swim now.