The Buried Life and Four Great Books

Cotoneaster Doing Its Best in Calderstones Park, 10 October

Humans beings are meaning-making creatures: making meaning is how we  do our being. We’re here, born into the world, apparently needing to survive even beyond or aside from our biological purpose of perpetuating the species and we’re happiest when we are completely absorbed by compelling activity.  I think that whatever else Shared Reading does (and there are many useful offshoots) what it does primarily, what in essence it is, is the making of  meaning. Those meanings aren’t always shared, often times they are profoundly individual and are simply witnessed by others. That sharing through witnessing is profound. I’m thinking of a moment in a Drug and Alcohol Addiction Centre when we were reading The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I’ve  written about this great novel before, here.

This is a book I would always aim to read in a Shared Reading group, but especially  in a group where people have had or are having a hard time. It’s a children’s novel but it is funny and sophisticated, a painful novel of a hard  journey that ends  happily with a homecoming and a  self-assembled family. The Story: a father-mouse-and-child-mouse clockwork toy gets broken and  thrown out on the street: they have to get fixed, escape an enemy, find a road, find a family and fight for their territory, make a home and eventually, become self-winding.

We’d  just read the  part where, for a second time, the father and child get smashed apart. Haven’t got the book here, so can’t quote it but it is a terrible moment when the father cries out, ‘We’re broken!’  and the novel tells us that the  saying of the word ‘broken’ is as terrible as the experience of it.

As we read, a bunch of us, raggedy and battle-scarred adults sitting around a table in an institutional room with our cups of  tea, taking in those hard words, one man responded with a broken, involuntary cry,  saying something like, ‘I know how that feels, I’m broken: I have bowel-cancer. Saying that is harder than having the disease.’

Everyone was moved by the man’s cry, and  after a few moments another member of the group, a guy with a terrible stammer  leaned to towards  him to say, in a moment of profound solidarity, ‘We’re all f…f…f…f…f****ing broken, Jim.’   As he spoke he made a wildly expansive gesture with his arm and knocked three or four cups of tea over all of us.

Why am I remembering this? It was one of the great moments of  meaning and witness I’ve experienced in my Shared Reading life.

I  was thinking  yesterday as I continued to think about the films I had seen on Thursday, that  my relation to Shared Reading starts from  the belief that things are broken, and a work of literature that gives a great account of  that is The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. (I think I am going to start adding an ongoing reading of the play into my weekly  reading pattern.) That the pattern of my belief, as set out in books, could be  everything starts from the broken and the stuck (Winter’s Tale), discovers moments of life-making but transitory meaning (as In Wordsworth, ‘Intimations’ or The Prelude) turns to the workaday world of George Eliot (Middlemarch: there has to be vocation, habit, to hold you in place). This is a template of sorts.

The poem I am reading at the moment, ‘The Buried Life’, by Matthew Arnold, homes in on one area of the template, the moment when ‘something’ pokes through the  ordinary and takes you fleetingly into some other order of feeling.

I’m having trouble making the stanza breaks show, for some reason, when I paste the poem here, so do look it up here, where it appears  in the way it should!

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.
On previous days I’d got to this point in Stanza 2,
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                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Interesting that Matthew Arnold sees the inability to be direct as a problem of others, ‘the mass of men’, ‘they’ for  in a moment he will make himself part of that mass. But  at first it seems as if it is ‘them’. Even more interesting  is his sense that  the mass of men, most people are or see themselves as ‘alien to the rest/Of men, and alien to themselves.’  That addition, ‘alien to themselves’ is the complicated bit. How does he know?


Do I know? How do I know?

Because I love this bit of the poem, and I believe it. I suppose I know because , though I don’t like to admit it, I recognise at some level, that it is true in me. Alien to  myself.  Read it! Read it again!

It’s as if we revealed even to ourselves what we really felt and thought it would be frightening, alarming. And yet ‘The same heart beats in every human breast!’ – do I believe that, too? Yes.  I’m both in disguie, hiding, to others and oftentimes to my self and I also recognise I’m doing that and so is everyone else. We feel as others feel.

That brings the close of the stanza. There’s normal life – hidden, disguied –  and that should be different to our life in love (open, together, connecting) , but it seems it is not:

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Is there something that one individual cannot share with another, however close? Look at all the joining pronouns : we, my love, our hearts, our voices, we. Yet they can’t get seem to get over it.

New stanza.  If you look at the  Poetry Foundation version of the poem and see the stanza breaks, it’s worth some thought about them. Why do they come where they come? It feels as if Matthew Arnold  has to keep starting again – get’s to a dead-end, can’t take his thought any further, stops. Starts again.

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!

This stanza seems to offer a small possibility that  communication might be possible, for the closest lovers, ‘even for a moment’.  Previously the problem was couched in terms of ‘spell’ and dumbness, but now the language points us to  some sort of locking up,  ‘free’, ‘unchained’ and ‘seals’ point  me towards a sense of something present but un-get-at-able! And whatever it is – it ‘hath been deep ordained’. That’s interesting isn’t it, because ordained seems a religious word, so I am slightly thinking,  is it a god-given fact?  But ‘deep’; makes it feel biological, as if it is in the very depths of our being , in our DNA , in our cells, in our heart of hearts.

Yet there is possible movement here – it might happen that we could ‘get free/our heart’, even if it is only ‘for a moment.’

Yes, that is the moment that sometimes happens to  readers in Shared Reading groups. It doesn’t happen all the time, it doesn’t happen to everyone. But when it does happen, everyone who witnesses it knows they have been close to something profound. And we are all affected by that.

Time is up.

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