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

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Just Finished: Histories by Sam Guglani

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Medics are human!

So hard to remember when they are  speaking to you as though you aren’t, or when, godlike, they are fixing you.

Hard for the medics, too, when  their much of training and daily grind conspire also to create a wall of  (sometimes vital) professionalism  between them and us.

When my father-in-law had cancer we did not care one jot about the human skills of the  consultant: we just wanted Big Science to come with its battering rams and attack the disease. Later, we were touched by the kindness of the man whose medicine could not save the day, but whose shared  humanity lit Dad’s last weeks with loving concern. That loving concern, the exchange of feeling between doctor and patient, human and human, is Sam Guglani’s subject matter, both in this novel and his extra-curricula activities as an oncologist in Cheltenham, and the founder of Medicine Unboxed, which aims to engage health professionals and the public in conversation around medicine, illuminated through the arts (www.medicineunboxed.org).

I saw Sam speak a couple of weeks ago  at Gladstone’s Library , partly a  reading from the book, partly a talk about the  need  for medicine and art to meet , particularly literature, more often, and more publicly.  As he spoke I remembered some work I’d done with medical students when we had a few years’ experiment with literature modules in the School of Medicine at Liverpool – first, how hard those medical students were willing to work, something some arts students might have profitably learned from.  Second, how useful some of them found poetry. Third how distressing some members of some Shared Reading groups found it to have a student doctor in their midst – as if the enemy had shown up in your sanctuary.

It seemed to me that Sam Guglani might help spearhead a movement to change that dynamic, and I was a bit sorry that he was an oncologist: we need  him to work in mental health.

Of course, there are many humane, careful, loving people working in the discipline of psychiatry.  I know some of them. But not many people I meet through Shared Reading seem to have been in relation to them in many years engagement with Mental Health Services. Hence the distress of some group members  when finding ‘doctors’ on placement in Shared Reading groups some years ago.

After he’d finished speaking, Sam read  the opening chapter of the novel, which made a great stand alone story, strangely shocking.

I bought the book and read it last week – a set of inter-related stories from hospital; doctors, patients, cleaners, nurses, porters, doctors-as-patients, the voices are woven into a  swelling chorale: this is human life in a contemporary hospital, a workplace, the demands of being human often pressured out of kilter by the demands of  ordinary organisational any-workplace situations. Anyone at work can find the printer’s broken, IT help-desk not helpful, I haven’t managed to grab any lunch, am worried about home, or am still flustered by what happened before…but here, you are face to face with the next patient, and another test of your  often failing humanity:

They’re waiting, someone is always waiting, always wanting something from her, wanting an answer. Even now, looking away from both of them and down at the notes on her lap, Emily feels the couple sitting there tight-lipped and straight-backed, the entitled press of their stares.

She’s been falling in slow motion from the minute she walked in here, apologising but not really meaning it. No, she had meant it, she was sorry, but only just. In a contest of apologies it would be weightless: sorry to keep you waiting, sorry, you’ve months to live; sorry, these days I struggle to feel very much for you, my patients.

She’d sat next door first, hoping to read through the notes and print off a path report. But the printer had crashed again, its red light blinking after brief, hopeful whirrs. She called IT and someone young, some terribly young and relaxed-sounding girl, said it was  too late in the day, that they couldn’t possibly fix it now, surely there must be another printer? Then Nancy had arrived, telling her that Freda, their woman on the ward, was set to leave, she wouldn’t stay in for tomorrow’s MRI, that her daughter and husband were with her and they were packing up. This news, this and the sound of the clicking printer, pushed Emily from her chair and propelled her into the consultation, unprepared and flustered.

 

It’s  little moments like that, almost unspottable, that make Sam Guglani such an excellent human diagnostician. That the  printer could have pushed you, that the previous patient’s walking out could have propelled you into action with the next patient, like a domino fall, one into the other, with your conscious self scrabbling about behind, trying to self-question. Am I sorry? No? Yes? A bit? He is carefully observing and sescribing  humans asked to work in  overly demanding and finally inhumane situations, mostly doing their failing best.

Guglani wants to draw attention to the failings as well as the best efforts. He’s angry, often  through  the non-medical voices ithe book, the porter, the hairdresser, or here, the medical secretary:

Take Munro in our office yesterday, telling us all about Jim. I’ve some bad news everyone, he says. And even then his voice stays hollow. How must that be for a patient? Important words offered as empy sound. I stood at the back of the room and watched him as he talked at us.

‘Important words offered as empty sound… he talked at us’  Of course we all get angry about this, and it is us non-medics perhaps who feel it most. But this isn’t a critique to be applied only to senior doctors. I’ve met it often in professional, highly educated people, women aswell as men, who use it as cover, a kind of armour. As members of a civil society, we have to ask ourselves, why do such people need that armour?

For the medics, the pressure to save lives, to heal, to offer cure is a hard pressure to bear for best among us. For more on that read John Berger’s A Forunate Man. Histories would also sit well with a rereading of  Lydgate’s part in Middlemarch. Feel a weekend study group on  medics and  literature coming on…

With this novel Sam Guglani joins a fine tradition of doctor-writers – he quoted Chekov (much read in Shared Reading groups)  at the start of his talk, and I thought as  he spoke about  William Carlos Williams and Oliver Sacks. I remembered, too, the group of medical students I spent an afternoon with who berated me for thinking they had time to waste on literature – we have  blood clots and heart attacks to learn about! People could die!

Cant remember if I have written about this in The Reader magazine?  I wrote about it at the time, I know. Will dig it out and post tomorrow.

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

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Nasturtiums in the rain

First, an apology to regular readers for my radio silence last week and the somewhat intermittent signal prior to that.

I’ve been very busy with things at The Reader and often times when I wake up I have got some pressing matter leftover from the day before and simply have to do the practical thing and deal with whatever it is. I hope that period of huge busy-ness is going to slow down in the weeks ahead. But if I go offline don’t think it means I’m  having an extra hour in bed (though  if I can, I will) just think of me reading or writing documents, ploughing through email trails or travelling on those early trains.

It makes  me think about the difference between the life of contemplation and the life of action, an old chestnut to many readers, I’m sure, but one I’ve not studied, though I’ve had powerful experience of it. It’s  twenty  years since I founded The Reader, with my colleague Sarah Coley, when we produced the first issue of The Reader magazine in Spring 1997. The Reader has since become one of the defining acts of my life, and often has demanded action at the expense of contemplation. I’m lucky in that I had an equally  long period of  contemplative life  before The Reader, from 1980, when I enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool Univeristy.  All I did, apart from personal life, and the practice of  writing, cookery, sewing and DIY, for twenty odd years  in the centre of my human span, was read and think about and sometimes teach literature.

That stood me in good stead, charging my innner battery for the long years of Reader action ahead.  But when weeks become the kind of busy-no-stop weeks I’m in at the moment, I miss the rhythm of my life contemplative and my Daily Reading Practice. So I was glad this last week to enjoy two Reader Thinkdays with colleagues – the first at Calderstones, where for the first time we brought everyone working on site to share some reading and to do some thinking about organisational development and ethos. How can we use our cafe coffee grounds for compost and how get  literature into the Ice Cream Parlour? How make a human connection between the kitchen and quality team?

Later in the week I traveled to a Polish Community Centre in Birmingham where our  national and far-flung criminal justice team  were meeting for their own Thinkday – same feeling of  excitement and pleasure at spending contemplative time with colleagues. We read Chaucer’s poem, Truth and spent a lot of time on the pressures of  working in high secure environments.  We asked ourselves, what is the value, for our group members,  of an hour of calm group attention – a moment of contemplation –  in a week of danger, self-harm, despair?

Those hours with colleagues felt like a sort of contemplation, and a valuable use of  my time, though they didn’t translate into anything visible here.

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to about line 250, Book 1. Satan, fallen from Heaven after challenging god in battle, is utterly ruined, chained to a burning lake in deepest hell. He is speaking to himself and  looking about, he has risen from the lake and found some  burning land on which to find a footing. And now he is contemplating his lot:

                           and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Last week I was thinking about the way a mind may change. Satan feels sorrow, perhaps sometimes something approaching remorse but it is a flickering sensation, always overcome by his determined will to remain the same. Does this mean that   he is unchangeable, a given  like gold or air or fire, simply what it is, immutable? Can it be true that  this  how minds, beings, human beings, are?

Certainly there are some givens that do not seem to change – those who have brought up babies will have seen some element of what we call  ‘personality’  or perhaps character, always present.  Is this Satan’s case? He’s essentially an assertive fighter? He boasts that he is Hell’s ‘possessor’, as if  simply arriving there makes him its boss. And what is it about him that makes him that boss? His mind, which is his own, and which gives  him a  power to own anything, anywhere. He is

                                            One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

Like the noun ‘possessor’, the verb ‘brings’ is powerful, and gives Satan agency. This is  in one sense false – he has no agency about being sent to Hell,  for nine days and nights he fell, and was unable to stop himself , and is now unable to go back to Heaven (though his thoughts often turn longingly in that direction). Yet there is a powerful will in his mind – is that the same as agency? What you can do, think, in your own mind is one thing. How you can affect reality – the outside world – is another. Satan brings to Hell ‘a mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time’.

Powerful equipment, but perhaps broken  – though still dangerous – equipment? Could such a mind hold you up (I  imagine Nelson Mandela in the Robbin Island Prison) and hold purpose and  self-control together in terrible situations? Yes. Could it be a broken mind asserting itself – I imagine an incarcerated murderer, never repentant, never sorry.  Yes.

Now Satan gives us two of the poem’s most famous lines:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

This is a power that minds – any minds, good or bad, working well or broken – may have, just as lungs have the power to take in – more or less – oxygen.  Satan asserts the greater power of his mind over external reality.  Each reader must surely recognise some truth in this – how we think  about things does change them. But in what sense can the extremity of Hell be made Heav’n? If that was true why not stayed chained on the burning lake? And the next line seems in some way to undercut the sense of power Satan is desperate to hold on to;

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

I don’t know why I have a feeling that  ‘ if I be still the same’ is sad:  perhaps implies being stuck with yourself, the  rigidity of not being able to change. It is no matter where he is –  he is himself.  For a fraction of a second this does not feel good.  Then Satan reasserts himself – he’s only ‘less than he/Whom thunder hath made greater’.

That ‘less’ must chafe and gives rise to the thought that  God is only greater because he makes more noise.

Can you make a Heaven of Hell by thinking? I think so. This a power humans have, one we both do and often don’t recognise. There’s also external reality in which we stub our toes on reality whenever we try not to believe in it. And yet the world changes because people think thoughts.

Time to stop for  today because there is action to be taken in the garden – the ivy must come down, I think. It’s a hellish job.

But if I simply said ‘There! I’ve thought: the ivy has come down and been carted to the dump…heaven!’ I don’t think the garden would look any different. So in what sense is the mind it’s own place, making a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n?

More next week.

Paradise Lost 11: Can You Ever Change Your Mind?

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Indoor Plants lighting November

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to Book 1, Line 241, and had seen the fallen Satan talk himself into trying again and rising from the lake of fire where he had fallen after his nine days fall from heaven,. He’s found a footing on land now (though still all fire) and looks about him:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Here’s a key moment in the poem. Since we have first seen him, Satan is in a state of  flux, one moment despairing, another, rallying himself to  fight on, sometimes seeming almost broken, moments later, resurgent. I think it is worth wondering what this feels like in human terms. The amount of energy consumed by changing mental gear in this way must be immense.

I’m thinking now about my own mind. I don’t feel I have a lot of control over it, and remember the  the ‘white bear’ experiment first proposed by  Fydor Dostoevsky. It’s very hard to stop your mind doing things it wants to do.  But can you will it to do some things you want it to do – can you think of a blue flower, thus pushing the white bear aside? An interesting experiment  on the rebound effect has shown that  while suppression by distraction of other means may work for a while, the under-thought will return later and perhaps stronger.

That seems to ring true for Satan, moving all the time between despair and grief for what is lost, and angry self-assertion about what he gains by that loss. So, looking about, he sees  loss:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

‘This mournful gloom’ is now the medium in which the fallen angels must have their being and there is no doubt that Satan suffers as he looks about him and realises this.  He accepts it (‘be it so’) and seems in acccepting to accept that God is all-powerful.

since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

But I wonder if the  underlying thought ( I should be all powerful – not Him!) if asserting itself even as  Satan seems to accept thereality he finds himself in.  His resistance is in the word ‘ now’  (‘since he/ who is now Sovran’)  which suggests that God has not always been, and perhaps will not always be,  Sovran. That is just  ‘now’, at this moment. There is in Satan’s mind a potential other time, which he believes in more strongly than the evidence of ‘now’,, when he will  be, might be, Sovran.  And this  nascent thought is picked up and amplified in the next lines:

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Only ‘force’ has made God Supream, Satan  boasts to himself, in terms of ‘reason’, they were, are ‘equals.’

Is this true?  Satan thinks it is and seems to feel utterly secure in that thought.  Yet there is a sadness to his thinking that seems to  undercut his rational thought. The tone of  his thought is melancholy:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:

I have to stop now as going  out today to Gladstone’s Library

—————————————–

Sunday, 5th November

10.15am – 11.15am: Sam Guglani – Medicine, Science and the Arts

What are the human and moral challenges of contemporary medicine? Why are the arts an urgent and necessary means of knowledge towards better medicine – and ultimately, better society? Join poet, novelist and consultant oncologist Sam Guglani for an hour’s reflection, including the Medicine Unboxed project and readings from his work.

Sam Guglani is a poet, novelist and consultant oncologist who specialises in the management of lung and brain tumours. He has a background in medical ethics and chairs the Gloucestershire Hospitals Trust law and ethics group. Director of Medicine Unboxed since he founded it in 2009, Sam uses the arts and creative industries to illuminate challenges in medicine. He is a published poet and writes for The Lancet, and his debut novel Histories is released in 2017.

 

 

 

The Buried Life: A Bolt Shot Back

Viburnum1
Small, intensely scented Viburnum flowers, spicing the garden air

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’ here for the past while. Find the whole poem here.

I’m in this long central section – I read it aloud to get myself into the water this morning:

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!

As I read I  think – I’ve missed some lines – did I notice, last week, ‘unspeakable desire’? Did I notice ‘tracking our true, original course’? And above all, did I notice, key lines for the whole poem,

A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us
I don’t think so! I was rushing to get to the many thousand lines, to these lines,
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—

which seem to me the wellspring of the poem. The disjunction between the nameless feelings, the sense of ‘something’ under our day-to-day selves, ‘something’ almost impossible to get at, get into words, know in consciousness, and our  top selves, the brainy bit that goes around thinking rationally and processing direct experience, that’s where this poem finds itself, reaching after knowing, failing, reaching again.

 

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 even a poet is reduced to not being able to get at this area of being – I see Matthew Arnold uses the word ‘skill’ to try to  pinpoint what you’d need to do it, but later the word ‘eloquent’ is a throwaway – eloquence, poetry won’t necessarily do it.

This is useful as a reminder to me – I don’t always feel what Matthew Arnold describes feeling but I do recognise the disjunct. I don’t mind so much not being able to put that buried life into words, though I think I did mind when I was younger, was always writing, getting stuff down  in notebooks as if knowing or trying to know what I felt was of key importance. Now I am just glad to feel it. And I do feel it.

Yesterday for the first time  in a few weekends I spent some time in the garden, mowing the lawn, taking some cuttings, looking hopelessly at the ivy problem. As I got the lawn mower out of the shed (stupid, irritating, difficult process, needs a rethink)  and put it down on the grass I had a  shot of intense pleasure, the sunlight, the grass, the scent, the quiet of the garden all pleased me. My being in the garden pleased me, and I thought of what someone had said to me earlier in the week about football being good for his mental health. I thought ‘gardening is good for my mental health’ and it is because I get this delight, this joy.  Though ‘delight’, ‘joy’ won’t quite do.

myrtle 1.JPG
Myrtle berries, tremendous harvest

There was the Myrtle bush, completely drenched in its  jet ovoid berries.  What can I do with them? I looked up  Uses of Myrtle and found that they are used in bridal bouquets in England, and for roasting meat in Sicily. They gave me a massive jolt of pleasure, the cornucopia of them, and I took cuttings for the Secret Garden at Calderstones, where, one day, weddings will be held.

myrtle 2.JPG
In summer, Myrtle has tiny, frothy, white scented flowers, ideal for a bridal bouquet, in Autumn these amazing black-jewel berries, which you can dry and they become like peppercorns (let’s see what happens). The leaves are evergreen.

I didn’t talk, or write, I just felt it. And that was good. And that is more or less what happens to Matthew Arnold, through love,  in the poem;

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.

Love is the most direct way to that connection but it isn’t only romantic love that does it. Love of any sort will probably do it.  You’ll know it by its effect, not its cause;

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.

This is an effect I have often seen and experienced in Shared Reading. It’s a wonderful experience to sit alongside someone who is formulating words to express what they feel when they get to this place. I saw it recently in the films produced by the CRILS team as part of the AHRC Cultural Value project.  A man in a drug rehab, an old woman in a Care Home – both moved, unlocked, reach for words which speak of the heart which lies plain,

And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

There’s a beautiful  completion to these words, as if things don’t get any better for humans than this.  It feels almost a state of rest? And when I look again at the final lines, it is a sort of rest;

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.

So, for a moment, we have ‘got free’. It won’t last, it is a ‘lull in the hot race’ but the coolness and the calm are a delight which create a sort of channel for a kind of knowledge: ‘he thinks he knows’, nothing certain here, but a different kind of knowing, perhaps. An intimation.

The biggest moment in this poem – so often frustrated and stuck – is the bolt being shot back. The image is a powerful one – there is almost a violence in it, as there so often is in real bolts, in real life.  They are rarely well-oiled and easy to shift! I love that Matthew Arnold makes the experience universal – look at the pronouns;

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.

Situations where that bolt shoots back are vital to us – we need that to happen and we don’t have enough experiences of it.  That is part of the mental ill-health epidemic we’re beginning to suffer.

I’m going to finish my daily reading practice by rereading the whole poem.

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.

 

The Buried Life: Holding the Line

acer2.jpg
Acer near The Reader Cafe, Calderstones Park, 25 October

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’ here for a the past while. Find the whole poem here.

I’m at this point:
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!

Is this about being or about saying? Is it about knowing or about language? Or is it both? First two lines – clear: we’ve felt something, we’ve been moved, and we look inside,  a common experience, ‘many a man in his own breast then delves’, but we can’t pinpoint it, we can’t get to it; ‘But deep enough, alas! none ever mines’.

Had that feeling? Yes. Let’s go on then.

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.

What are these ‘many thousand lines’? I think of the army – of the line – the front line, advancing. And I think of lines of enquiry. Does it mean ‘places where we have to be?’ Many thousand – so we’re doing it all the time. For me those lines are to do with showing up, with being ourselves in practical life. Such experiences are testing, and we’ve done well, ‘we have shown, on each, spirit and power’.  I’m feeling happy as I read these lines, they carry me, and make me feel ‘spirit and power’ is possible, is available, and I might  have it. I certainly want those things as I hold my line. Then I come to the but.

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.

There are acres of ordinary life, times on the lines when we’re doing well and feel pretty good about it , showing ‘spirit and power’, but Matthew Arnold shifts gear or turns to face another dimension, looking away from this ordinary run of life to something, somewhere else. Even while we are doing  fine in  the outward-facing department we have not ‘been on our  own line’ (notice this one is singular, whereas the outward facing ones are plural – what difference does that make?) and we’ve hardly been on it for ‘one little hour’.

I don’t think it takes away the ‘spirit and power’, think they are still there, they are just somewhere else. However much work you do  in the outward facing dimension,  and however well you do it, the inward  dimension is there and  we’re not on it.

Let’s read the section again:

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!

The connection between being and speaking is vital for Matthew Arnold – the uttering of all the nameless feelings that  ‘course through our breast’ seems vital to his sense of deepest self. There’s a gap between the reality of  what is felt and the  ability of language to express it. That’s a tough gap for someone to face in poetry, the art of language. Can’t we ever get at our deepest selves ?

For someone with God in their life, this problem might be alleviated by prayer. For mystics and meditators, there is the one-with-everything state, described by Doris Lessing in Martha Quest, and found in religious writing everywhere, from every time and in various faiths. Look again at Doris Lessing’s description:

There was certainly a definite point at which the thing began. It was not; then it was suddenly inescapable, and nothing could have frightened it away. 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. She felt the rivers under the ground forcing themselves painfully along her veins, swelling them out in an unbearable pressure; her flesh was the earth, and suffered growth like a ferment; and her eyes stared, fixed like the eye of the sun. . . During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman, like the blundering rocking movement of  a bullock cart; and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice. Yet she was part of it, reluctantly allowed to participate, though on terms – but what terms? For that moment while time and space (but these are words, and if she understood anything it was that words, here, were like the sound of baby crying in a whirlwind) kneaded her flesh, she knew futility; that is, what was futile was her own idea of herself and her place in the chaos of matter. What was demanded of her was that she should accept something quite different; it was as if something new was demanding conception, with her flesh as host; as if it were a necessity, which she must bring herself to accept, that she should allow herself to dissolve and be formed by that necessity. But it did not last; the force desisted, and left her standing on the road, already trying to reach out after ‘the moment’ so that she might retain its message from the wasting and creating chaos of darkness. Already the thing was sliding backwards, becoming a whole in her mind, instead of a process; the memory was changing, so that it was with nostalgia that she longed ‘to try again’.

There had been a challenge that she had refused. But the wave of nostalgia made her angry. She knew it to be a falsity; for it was a longing for something that had never existed, an ‘ecstasy’ in short. There had been no ecstasy, only a difficult knowledge. It was as if a beetle had sung. There should be a new word for illumination.

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

I notice the failure of language here:

During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman, like the blundering rocking movement of  a bullock cart; and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice. Yet she was part of it, reluctantly allowed to participate, though on terms – but what terms? For that moment while time and space (but these are words, and if she understood anything it was that words, here, were like the sound of baby crying in a whirlwind) kneaded her flesh, she knew futility; that is, what was futile was her own idea of herself and her place in the chaos of matter.

I’m not sure that Matthew Arnold and Doris Lessing are describing the same experience but there are elements which seem to match. It’s as if Doris has gone much further – she has allowed the daytime self to dissolve, whereas it feels at the moment as Matthew Arnold is standing on the brink, saying, I need my language!

There’s an interesting thought here, that I’m not in the  right time and space and mind-set to have – about what language is for humans.  In  David Bohm’s book Wholeness and the Implicate Order he speaks of language as a key part of the breaking up of  the flow of experience. Naming things breaks them up into units. This is helpful and then not helpful.

Bohm writes;

Indeed to some extent, it has always been both necessary and proper for man, in his thinking, to divide things up, and to separate them, so as to reduce  his problems to manageable proportions; for evidently, if in our practical technical work we tried to deal with the whole of reality at once, we would be swamped. So, in certain ways, the creation of special subjects of study and the division of labour was an important step forward. Even earlier, man’s first realization that he was not identical with nature was a crucial step, because it made possible a kind of autonomy in his thinking, which allowed him to go beyond the immediately given limits of nature, first in his imagination and ultimately in his practical work.

These are the many thousands of lines we’ve been on – doing our practical and technical work – and this mainly where we are, but Matthew Arnold knows there is another way of seeing and feeling it all, and the two do not sit easily together.  Bohm was a leading theoretical physicist and was profoundly influenced by  Einstein’s work, but he was also a mystic who made contact with the Dalai Lama. Quantum physics provides a theoretical framework which accounts for much of the long-established human tradition of mysticism. Matthew Arnold lived in a Newtonian Universe of lines we were on or not on: Bohm was lucky to know that the same point may be a wave or a particle…

But I should go back to the poem:

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!

Those feelings we can’t get at or name are there, are present, though unexpressed and  thus giving rise to the frustration Matthew Arnold feels:

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!

That’s it for today, time’s up. All this makes me think I want to reread The Cloud of Unknowing. And I want more time to think about it.

 

The Buried Life

Lake-at-island-Mljet-in-Croatia_XL-870x400
Another  failed attempt to picture the type of blue I’m talking about

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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!
But time is up – will go on with this tomorrow.