Yesterday’s Daily Reading Practice was one of those background days, days when you clean your desk and set out a new notebook, a day of prep. Not much happened in the way of actual reading and writing. I’m working on reading ‘the Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold, and you will find a text of the poem here. I’m pasting it below for ease of reference but I see that the stanza breaks don’t always show up. You can see them (they are important resting places and markers of new thought) over on The Poetry Foundation version.
I’d got as far as ‘driving on with it eternally’ when I felt myself going sideways to look at some other texts which were helping me think about the central experience describe by – or alluded to – in ‘The Buried Life’. Those other reading experiences (Bohm’s ‘wholeness’ as a form of health, and Doris Lessing’s Zimbabwean veldt experience of cosmic wholeness in her novel, Martha Quest – see yesterday’s post) were useful because they helped me think about, remember, re-experience, the thing Matthew Arnold is talking about – an experience hard to put into words, which he calls ‘a nameless something’. I didn’t want to go on with my reading of the poem until I’d re-established in my own mind my own sense of what he was talking about.
Here’s ‘The Buried Life’, read it all through to get going:
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 weakTo unlock the heart, and let it speak?Are even lovers powerless to revealTo one another what indeed they feel?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 movedTrick’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?Ah! 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 foresawHow 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 playHis 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;And 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,But 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;A 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,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 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 doIs 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;Ah 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 conveyA 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,Our 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.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 seesThe meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.And 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.And then he thinks he knowsThe hills where his life rose,And the sea where it goes.
I’m going to start again today at the line beginning ‘But often, in the world’s most crowded streets…’
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,But 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;A longing to inquireInto the mystery of this heart which beatsSo wild, so deep in us—to knowWhence our lives come and where they go.
I don’t personally feel this feeling ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ or in ‘the din of strife’: I feel it after that or before it, or away from it. So I read the lines, and believe that Matthew Arnold felt it in those busy, humanly demanding places, but I don’t find a match very easily. Sometimes, ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ I feel exhilaration, sometimes (I’m sorry to admit) disgust, but rarely a desire for knowledge of the ‘buried life’. I’m too distracted, dislocated.
Even so, I recognise the desire, which mostly I experience in quieter situations. The peculiar blue colour of the sea lakes on the island of Mljet (which I’ve visited twice and would go to again any number of times – drawn entirely by the blue of the water) gave me this feeling, a sort of frustration of not being able to get at whatever it powerfully was, moving me, making me alert to ‘a something’ each time I saw the colour calling to me through the trees. It was as if the blue might make me cry, filled me with nameless feelings – I’m sure there will be psycho-synaesthetic explanations for this, but I felt, we’re on holiday, and having a lovely time, and it is warm and we are walking through the forest and yet ‘Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!’
When Matthew Arnold feels it here, in this line about the crowded streets, his desire is to get to it, to know it in language, although it is an ‘unspeakable desire’ and cannot be put into language.
It’s interesting to note that David Bohm, when thinking about wholeness attributes much of human fragmentation on language. If we can name it we can separate it out. We can call it ‘ sea lake’ or ‘blue’ or ‘desk’ or ‘sorrow’ or ‘little animal’ or ‘grasses’ but if we didn’t have language, we’d just have to experience it all, everything, as one. In Martha Quest’s moment of illumination the lines between named separate things blur:
There was a slow integration, during which she, and the little animals, and the moving grasses, and the sunwarmed trees, and the slopes of the silvery mealies, and the great dome of blue light overhead, and the stones of the earth under her feet, became one, shuddering together in a dissolution of dancing atoms.
I’m thinking, though I haven’t got the book at hand, of the moment in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life where a new born baby sees a bunch of irises: Byatt describes what the baby sees in pretty much the same way.
For Matthew Arnold this unspeakable desire becomes
A thirst to spend our fire and restless forceIn tracking out our true, original course;A longing to inquireInto the mystery of this heart which beatsSo wild, so deep in us—to knowWhence our lives come and where they go.
Normally, our fire and restless force is spent creating things, things like ‘the worlds most crowded streets’ but now for a moment Matthew Arnold contemplates turning his human power towards understanding ‘our true, original course’. Course is a good word here , connecting to watercourse, the channel that a flowing body of water flows through, so our thoughts go back the idea of this true under-lie as like a hidden stream. That underground stream is us, and is what we flow through, and the way in which we go – ‘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 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 doIs eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
Yes, I get this. I have experienced this feeling of ‘a nameless something’ a few times. Once was in Krka National Park in Croatia (though it was still Yugoslavia when I was there). A sense of total joy at simply being alive.
Some of Mary Oliver’s poetry seems to reflect this for me…….along with other poets, painters, musicians…..
thanks Heather, yes, nature and art seem to do it, though not always. And as for the funny unhappy feeling when you feel something big but cant get at it…