Paradise Lost 19: Seeing What You’ve Done, and the Yets Ands and Buts

roses and bricks.JPG
‘I will survive’ : roses growing through stacked bricks on building site

What I am doing in this series is reading Paradise Lost, a few lines at a time, in  instalments.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, (here) I was reading about how having/being  a great, well-oiled, mechanical army makes you feel strong but how that strength comes at the cost of literal heart-hardening. You feel pride but not much else. Satan reviews the army/machine, his heart hardened with pride, but what do the host of fallen angels see when they look at him ?(we’re in Book 1 line 587):

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

I’m thinking about real armies, or even gangs, and how when we are part of such a group, we might look at our leader.  Not always with total admiration, I imagine, even if you have adopted said leader willingly.  I watch. I see  what he is, I know what he is. Supply your own real life leader, where you know they know they are tricking themselves but you don’t say – or even hardly dare to think in consciousness – that  they are doing so. They army ‘observ’d/Thir dread commander’, where ‘observd’ is not the same as ‘looked’, or even ‘watched’ :there’s a distance and perhaps even a judgement in ‘observd’. At first we see only the leader’s strength and pre-eminence:

he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr;

But that is soon undercut by the sense of loss that attends all the fallen:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d:

The ‘yet’ is crucial. It raises issues of time and what continues after an act.  When we’ve done something wrong – imagine your own wrong thing, whatever would count as ‘sin’ or ‘corruption’.  A simple time-bound act, which is completed, is one thing.  (But is any act ever simply time-bound? Doesn’t everything have reverberation and consequence, ongoingness, internally even if not externally). And many other acts of wrong-doing are not, can not be, time-bound, because they affect the being of ourselves and others. In Satan’s case, he has not  yet lost everything, though the ‘yet’ gives us the clue that that will inevitably perhaps happen.  If you do something bad, and stop, that’s one thing. If you do something bad and continue, that’s another.

He looks like an ‘Arch Angel ruin’d’, but you still get the  words ‘Arch Angel’ in a sighting him before you get to the word ‘ruind’. Something  of his original state yet remains. I’m thinking of the innocence of babies and small children. They are, as Blake might have thought, innocent of experience, experience has not sullied them yet. All experience  is (is it?) corrupting. I’m thinking of a speeded up film of a peach rotting –  there’s corruption – it is natural, it must happen, given that we are in time, rather than in a frozen moment. The closer you are to  young childhood the less sullied by experience. Is there an adult innocence which might remain unsullied? Some people do seem closer to ‘good’ than others. And when we see it, we can see what cynicism looks like and how  corrupting it can be.  How things unfold and continue in time matters.   I believe this  makes it possible for those of us who live to change, when we’ve done wrong, to do better or less wrong.  If we wish. And if we can. For Satan this is never a possibility, as we will see.

Next comes a longish Miltonic simile, which you might, in a Shared Reading group, want to spend a little time on, going forward in order to look  back again at what we’ve just read:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs.

Good to get your group remembering what it looks like when mist obscures the brightness and yet lets us  see the sun. Or to remember the strange cold unnaturalness  of the eclipse. And to feel, that feeling e have in an eclipse does not feel good. So while Satan is upright like a tower, Milton is also undercutting him and  wanting us to also feel, Satan has lost the best of himself. It’s not good. And his  troops can see and feel that  -remember,  we started this secton with them observing him.

And now, as if a camera turned from a long panning shot of the army to a close-up of Satan, we learn how it feels to see what he sees:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

First we see him, from the outside:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime,

What a complicated picture of experience this is – however he is darkened by his loss, yet he still shines more brightly than any of his followers. I’m noticing the qualifier ‘yet’ then the next qualifier, ‘but’:  even as he is brighter, he  is also scarred and careworn . Now another ‘but’ –

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge:

These lines are full of ‘yet’, and ‘and’ and ‘but’. Milton doesn’t want to us to say one simple thing about Satan – he wants us to see as much complexity as we can take. Including finally – and for the first time? – ‘signs of remorse’. This comes as he sees the state of his fellows:

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

The ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ and ‘ands’ are so important  for building the complexity of the situation. I wonder if any of  the recent world dictators/tyrants/murderers have ever felt like this – bearing the guilt of corrupting others, ruining them. How awful too to  feel them both ‘faithful and  yet ‘withered’. But  then, does it need to be tyrant, I ask myself, could you imagine being that person? Seeing what you’ve done wrong writ large across the faces and lives of others? And of course I can.

Life after the fall is full of such misalignment, paradox, odd conjunctions, yets ands and buts. That is why I love this poem: there is no other work of literature that so strogly sets out whast it means to be fallen, me, you, the world, the lot.

The Winter’s Tale Day 10: A State Visit, Old Friends or an Affair?

myrtle3.JPG
Myrtle in the back garden – literally buzzing with bees – you can’t see them but there are hundreds 11 July 2018

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay longer. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2.  Leontes has failed to persuade Polixenes to stay a little longer and  has asked his Queen, Hermione, to try to win him. This she has done, by entreaty, gentle word play, perhaps a little flirting. We’re going to have to decide how much flirting…And we have to remember Leontes, standing near but not in the conversation, watching it unfold.

As the not-so-State-visit of the Unmentionable has unfolded before our eyes this last few days, I couldn’t help remember the play, these moments of strange cross-over between public and state affairs and the private. Look at photos of various bits of hand-holding.

But, back to the text! Let’s just read the next section:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

POLIXENES

We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.

HERMIONE

Was not my lord
The verier wag o’ the two?

POLIXENES

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.
HERMIONE

By this we gather
You have tripp’d since.
POLIXENES

O my most sacred lady!
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes
Of my young play-fellow.
HERMIONE

Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils: yet go on;
The offences we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinn’d with us and that with us
You did continue fault and that you slipp’d not
With any but with us.
LEONTES

Is he won yet?
HERMIONE

He’ll stay my lord.
LEONTES

At my request he would not.

A good example of thinking about how much you might read ahead in a Shared Reading session. I’m the world’s slowest reader, except where I need to speed up in order to show or experience the run of the action. That’s what I’d do here, speed up – because I want my group to know where we are heading – that terrible, childish, petulant line ‘At my request he would not.’

This is the point at which Leontes  really begins to lose himself and his grip on reality.

I want the serious reality of this terrible moment live in the room before we go slowly through more verbal play from Polixenes. I want to get this moment in the room, because it sets an emotional tone and kind of background to what we are going to read.  So, as in a poem, we’re reading  not just a linear narrative but back and forth, up and down the ines.

A question someone asked me recently: how do you know  when to glide over and not be too bothered about not understanding things and when to slow down and work at it?

Let’s read the opening again:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

This is a moment of slightly complex or hard to easily get language that anyone might think – what? Not sure what he’s just said.  I’d glide here –  the first line contains the real meaning: he’s going to stay.  but just for interest, what does the next bit, which takes three lines, mean?

The word ‘import’ is an odd one here –  one of the reasons an ear unfamiliar with Shakespearean language would or might be  put off…but it just means, bring in, doesn’t it? Hhhm, not quite. Import as in suggest?  To be a  prisoner suggests you’ve committed an offence, that’s the import of it. I’m going to look the verb up in the good old Etymological Dictionary.

early 15c., “signify, show, bear or convey in meaning,” from Latin importare “bring in, convey, bring in from abroad,” from assimilated form of in- “into, in” (from PIE root *en “in”) + portare “to carry,” from PIE root *per-(2) “to lead, pass over.”

So that is  why Polixenes speaks of  a crime Hermione might punish: prisoner signifies offence.

And the next bit? A bit of harmless flirting, harmless wit, wordplay…

Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

meaning – harder for me to commit a crime against you, than you to punish it.

But if you were looking for a hidden meaning (as Leontes, watching, may be – look at him! ) it might mean, I’d never do anything against you, but you could hurt me. It might mean that. Might not. We’ll have to wait and see. Is Leontes waiting to see?

Whatever it is, Hermione floats over this and turns the subject and lays down a line:

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

She’s saying: I’m your hostess. That’s it. Nothing more. Tell me about your childhoods, your boyhood friendship.

I wonder about Leontes, what is he doing right now? What do we see on his face?  – is this another ‘not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord?’ – is she deliberately appeasing him? And that word ‘come’ implies a turning away – if you’ve got to be Hermione, on a stage, physical, are you  moving at that point? Are  yo taking Polixenes arm? Holding your hand out?

Oh dear times up, more next time.

Silas Marner Day 41: George Eliot and George Saunders: Live Human Being

 

zakynthos plant.JPG
It’s not human, but it’s sure a live presence: unidentified plant, Zakynthos, July 2018

Long time since I read and wrote on Silas Marner.  (See that previous post here )I’ve been away from my routine, such as it is,  and latterly I’ve been even further away – having a long swim and lot of sleep and reading in  lovely Zakynthos, which I found a land of  great plants, generous hospitality and welcome, fine courgettes and  the cooking of courgettes.

I asked our host, Demetrios, why Zakynthos has two names (sometimes Zakynthos, sometimes Zante) and he replied, Let’s start with the bigger picture… Why does  Greece have two names? Hellas (as the Greeks call it) and Greece (from the Latin, as the Romans called it…) Ah, there was time there for slow answers.

courgette balls .JPG
Courgette Balls, home-made  by Maria at Dopia’s House,  Vasilikos, Zakynthos

I didn’t do much apart from read and swim and in the cool evenings walk to Dopia’s House for fine home  cooking and a visit to the one of the  three village shops. But I did think, when I get back, I will re-establish my daily reading and writing practice. So here we go.

I look back and see I last read and wrote about Silas Marner on the 30th April.  Hoooo.  That’s not good.

Silas was in my mind because before I went on holiday a much-respected colleague told me she was reading Silas Marner, but she didn’t say ‘reading’, she said ‘getting through’, which made me think she was finding it hard going, and when I asked her, she said she was…Which made me think ‘most people would find it hard going’.  Which made me think, ‘how could it not be like that?’ And it’s such a wonderful book –  what a shame to be put off by the slow opening chapters, or the ongoing problem of it being hard-to-get-through.

Reading aloud with others would help, because one of the hard-to-get through things is the  length and complexity of sentences. That is made easier by the slowness and added concentration of reading aloud. Another – the long-ago-ness.  Shared Reading would help share the strangeness – you’d ask each other questions about hand-loom weavers and poultices and the like. Another, things to do with tone. Tone is still hard to get right in reading aloud, but it is more likely to be got right by your voice when voiced than when read silently.

In my experience, when you are reading something hard-to-get-through in your head two things happen – you drift away from the hard sentences and don’t absorb them, and you lose sense of the longer rhythms of meaning which are often about tone of voice.  Recently, have I had this experience with George Saunders  prize-winning novel, Lincoln in The Bardo.

I like to think of myself as George Saunder’s greatest fan, so it’s not easy to admit I found that novel hard going.  I was, like my colleague, getting through it, because I wanted to, because I love George Saunders, because it is his first full-length novel and I wanted it to be great. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to give up on it. I wanted to get it!  But I couldn’t concentrate enough to make it come to life.

So I was delightful to I find Audible has a brilliant recording, with many great voices.  And that got me into it.  The recording  fails a little in that it records all the  historical research notes, which in a written text you’d pass over, and they got in the way during my listening… but even so, listening  broke the book open for me, and got the tone and voices in my head.  So I was sorry to see so many disappointed and perplexed reviews on the Audible page –  this is just not a good a starting place for getting to know George Saunders.  Disappointed readers/listeners: start with  the short story collections – I’ve written about them, in passing, before:  Pastoralia, Tenth of December.

I’m going to have some downtime in August when I will be having an operation on my foot. Have been stockpiling things to read, and will add Lincoln In The Bardo to that pile, as I think it is time for a re-read.

But meanwhile, back to Silas. Last time I was writing about George Eliot as a kind of pre-psychology psychologist, working out how human minds work. Thinking about Nancy Lammeter and  her husband Godfrey Cass. We’d been reading about Godfrey’s desire to adopt  Eppie (his own child, though no one but he knows it), and his inability to imagine Silas’ feelings;

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This is interesting, isn’t it?  We’d probably be naturally inclined to want to cross Godfrey off – to  set him up as a no-good-nik, and take no notice of  his inner workings. But that, George Eliot feels, would be a mistake; her big premise is, it’s better to try to understand people we are not naturally sympathetic to.

What do we learn here?  Godfrey, as posh person, doesn’t have an opportunity to realise poor people have feelings in the same way he has:

we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means

Some radical education would be needed to overcome this  natural seeming state of social affairs. Godfrey doesn’t know these people, doesn’t mix with them, doesnt meet them, talk to them.

It’s all very well, for me as a twenty-first century middle class  Guardian-reader, being outraged that a posh landed gentry type didn’t know what it meant to be one of his own villagers. But then I think back to before The Reader and ask myself how much time I actually spent with homeless multiply addicted young men living with psychosis before I began reading in hostels and rehabs?  I  give the pseudonym  ‘Jay’ to one of those young men…I  would theoretically have known  that Jay has feelings like me, but I’d never have  been close to Jay, never seen him moved to tears or being loving to another person, only seen him as a threatening  presence  in a deserted car park. Never saw him have his feelings. Not to my credit, but true. I had not gathered the impressions – him asking me for change at the car park exit frightened me – which could have helped me overcome my fears of Jay. Without getting to know him, how could I really know him?

Now I look at this choice of word, ‘adequate’, thinking of myself or other modern versions of this Cass problem.

It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project:

Think of fear of refugees, fear of  others, fear of those not like us… what is ‘adequate knowledge’ in such situations, where people are not seeing others as fully human. Very few of us would be ‘deliberately unfeeling’ if we knew (‘adequately’) what it meant to be other person.  ‘Adequate’ – it’s not a lot of knowledge.  It’s enough to make us feel. But  perhaps we are becoming too kind to Godfrey?  Here’s a real corrective;

his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

How complex he is!  He has  had a ‘blighting time of cruel wishes’  – that person who did not  own up to nor  take responsibility for his first wife and his own child – that was Godfrey. Who suffered the blight? The cruelty? Yes – his dead wife, yes, his abandoned child. But also  – prehaps – he, himself?

As well as that cruelty, there is in Godfrey, ‘natural kindness’.  That’s real, too, though how  I am to hold the two things (  ‘cruel wishes’ and ‘natural kindness’ ) in balance is a real and very life-like question.  Despite the kindness, I’m still worried about the now past time of cruelty.  And that worry is extended by the  added comment on Nancy.

Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

He is naturally kind, when not pressed by more terrible needs. Nancy is  not entirely tricking herself. Oh, but the presence of that ‘wilful illusion’, even as a partial negative!

Being a live human is complicated business.

Is that why I love George Saunders despite sometimes not getting it and not getting through it? Yesterday I re-read his short story ‘The Falls’. ( It’s in Pastoralia.) Highly recommended for some live human being.

 

 

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 9: Life Under A Time-travelling Magnifying Glass

shutters
Shutters and pines, Zakynthos,  29 June

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. She’s just said ‘you’ll stay?’…

POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?
POLIXENES
I may not, verily.

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the
stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.
POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

I’d been thinking about how it felt to be Leontes, having failed to persuade someone to do something (getting Polixenes to extend his visit) and having then to ask someone else (your wife, Hermione) to have ago.  Is there any way that could be ok? I try to imagine my feelings:  if I really, really wanted the person to stay, if I was totally secure with both that person and my spouse?  But there would still be the under-feeling of ‘he wouldn’t stay for me…’ I imagine Leontes watching this plea from Hermione.  I wonder how close he is to her: are they together, standing with their arms around each other? Is he across the room? I see them perhaps starting out close together and later, moving apart. When does that happen?

It starts off pretty straightforward, as if Hermione assumes that Polixenes’ saying no was a form, that really, he will stay. So she’s simple about it; ‘you’ll stay?’ she’s like an English lady in a flowery dress at a garden party: not much can go wrong here.

But when Polixenes continues to refuse what can she do? She chooses teasing; ‘Verily!’

Is that  the moment she moves away from Leontes? Her ‘Verily’ feels as if it is a reaching forward.

That’s a very real moment between friends. ‘I may not, verily’ (serious, grown up person with things to do) ‘Verily!’ (what do you think you are ! talking to me like that! I know you are not a grown-up with serious things to do  even if you seem to be one!) and that gives Hermione her teasing opening to have a go at him.

Her whole argument is a play on ‘verily’ and not so much the word as the way he said it, as if he were a grown-up, a King, affairs of state etc. Hermione offers a little friendly arm-wrestling; verily!

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

Did I get the idea of arm-wrestling from her word ‘limber’? Not sure what she means by that, but I think I thought she meant ‘strong’. I’m going to look it up here.  Hhm, so, pliant, flexible.  As if, ‘you’ll say anything’ and therefore I can’t take seriously anything you say. From limber, pliant, flexible , Hermione goes to a distant extreme –

but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s.

She exaggerates, because he’s not trying to unseat the stars with his oaths, he’s merely been gently protesting.  She’s playing – slapping down her own ‘verily’ to match his.  And then, ‘a lady’s ‘Verily’s’ /as potent as a lords.’

Can you take the word ‘potent’ without thinking of something  even mildly sexual?  Or is it only about strength of will! Would you like to try reading that line as a tease? As a bit of flirting?  As an assertion of your feminine power?

What’s happening while she is speaking? Where is she, in relation to Polixenes – and where, still, silent – is Leontes? I imagine her pretty close to Polixenes now, maybe  holding his arm or his hands… certainly this kind of conversation doesn’t take place across a formal state distance.  It’s intimate. It expects to win. But maybe he still needs more arm-twisting? Hermione continues;

Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

That ‘will you go yet’ seems to imply he has made to go, seems as if she might be responding to some movement of his.  I see her putting her arms across him – blocking a possible movement.  Using her arms as  bars, maybe standing, laughing, sure of herself, blocking in his path.

Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

All  sweet, funny, winning. And then I think of Leontes, watching.  It don’t feel good to imagine being him’! You’d have to be a pretty secure person to watch all this and not feel undermined.  But so far the text doesn’t give us a clue to him (though we saw last time we read, Hermione reassuring him – ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’ and that was a little worrying).

I’m aware of different kinds of time going on as we read. The straightforward reading time, where things happen straight consecutive linear unfolding… and the time travel we can do up and down the lines, thinking back and forth in time : looking back, once we’ve heard that key line, ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’, we can’t help see what came before it in its light, too. It’s like being in psychoanalysis  or time-travel everything counts and every moment  influences every other moment. It’s all one.  Life is like that but usually we can’t see it, too busy in the moment or  in the past or future, rarely  holding it all in mind at once.

Is it because of Leontes (and where is he as all this happens, where is he positioned on the stage? How close or distant is he?)  that Hermione turns the conversation as soon as she has won Polixenes assent? I’ll stay he says and she replies, tell me about when you and  Leontes were boys…

 

Morning Incense…Paradise Lost off-piste

welsh poppies.JPG
Welsh Poppies greeting the Sun

These sunny mornings I can’t bear to read and write and am instead out in the garden, watering, propping, pruning and thinking of some lines from Paradise Lost (sorry to jump so far ahead, this is from Book 9

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—for much their work outgrew
The hands’ dispatch of two gardening so wide:
And Eve first to her husband thus began:—
“Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Someone asked me at the weekend what I would do if I didn’t work at The Reader, and I replied that I would garden, imagining not working  as retirement. If I had to have another job? I’d like a junk-shop or to work in small town general auction house. but if I didn’t  work at all? I’d be gardening.  Mine is a smallish plot –  I mean, compared to people with an acre or so – two gardens, one back, one from, each measuring  – according to my old notes 10 metres wide by 18 long.  You have to go through the house to get from one to the other,  we’re a terrace and there’s no side gate.  No greenhouse (I did have one once but West Kirby’s wild winter winds blew it flat) so everything is bought in or needs to be easily propagated.  I do roses (lovely Albertine, mainly) from cuttings and  any other things you can stick in the ground to sprout roots. I grow perennials, lots of geraniums,  Bowles Mauve wallflowers, poppies… but mainly I grow couch grass.  It is a natural for my sandy soil and I can’t defeat it – the opposite in fact: it often defeats me. Still a garden is agreat teacher, as Gertrude Jekyll said:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

(I got this quote from the twitter account of a gardener I follow –  Alison Levey (http://www.blackberrygarden.co.uk/).)

I go out in the sunny morning and so exactly what Milton describes:

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—

I breathe, and look and  feel grateful and glad, and work out what needs doing next. It’s all tending to wild, and the couch grass is rampant, and though I can’t love that, and no, not those red lily beetles either,  I do love the assertion of nature, the force and energy of the planet and the plants, even though

the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

unknown tree blossom.JPG
Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

roth.JPG

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

cow parsley
Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!