The Buried Life: Toys, War and the Colour Blue

Granada.jpg
                                Plumbago living the good life in Granada, Spain,  7 October,                                      a world away from this dark morning at my desk 

I’m continuing my reading of ‘The Buried Life’ which you’ll find here. This text  from the Poetry Foundation shows all the stanza line breaks, which are for some readers missing from the versions I’m posting. It’s good to have the stanza breaks – they help show the chunks of thought and the startings again which characterise this poem, which is one of those where the poet tries to work out in thought  and language something he has felt in feeling.

If you are joining newly today, try reading the whole thing, with plenty of pauses, following the run of sentences rather than the line-endings:

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.

Last time I’d got to

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!

and had stopped at the point where I’d been thinking about the imprisonment of the heart, the lips being chained, which seems one kind of forced restraint, and what happens in the last line of this stanza where the inability to get free seems more biological – the restraint, the seal, is ‘deep ordain’d’ , as if it  were itself part of us – something in us can’t or won’t allow us to get to it.

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.

I don’t know what Matthew Arnold means by ‘fate’ here. Perhaps another person would have said ‘God’, another ‘genetics’ or ‘psychology’.

When you  find that happening in a poem, it’s worth making temporary reading in pencil. that’s to say, an easily-changed-if-necessary-reading.  Penciling in a meaning here I’d simply say it is some force which has a powerful effect on human life. Fate, God, Genetics, Biology or any of the above.

I’m going to  try a translation into my own thought and language, something I’d often do in a Shared Reading group – asking readers to try to translate that last long sentence ( it does seem long, doesn’t it?)  into modern ordinary language in order to  make it real. Here it is again:

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.

‘Something’ in us knows how easily distracted  humans can be by the superficial, by games, by  politics, by power play, by war, by  habit or custom or by any shiny thing…so distracted that we lose our own real identity.  I’m just looking back to ‘every strife’ there – which is not so easily translatable. Let’s read again:

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—

What are we? Moving, plastic, adopting creatures who pour themselves into  ant energetic call, any disagreement – I mean, what does he mean by a ‘strife’  and how does he get there from ‘distraction’? one minute we are playing with toys, next at war. First we are  ‘possessed’ by distractions, next we ‘pour’ ourselves into any row that comes along – two kinds of distraction both of which seem to lead to  us losing our original selves, and ‘well-nigh  change his own identity’. Our plasticising, our creativity and lending ourselves might even work on our own selves. Having seen this, Fate acts to  preserve something that can’t be touched:

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,

Humans seem like a baby that might play with small soft toy or  just as happily with fire.  Fate wants to preserve  our ‘genuine self’ from our own stupid meddling and force us to be serious in one place, despite ourselves:

and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law

Would we  go against our deepest selves?  Haven’t you seen that  often? it is one of the downsides of human freedom and creativity. But whatever ‘Fate’ is, this power that Matthew Arnold has identified, can work against our playful messing about.  There is still, untouched, ‘our beings law’ – something in us that runs under all that froth.  ‘Even in his own despite’. Fate’s set up was to leave this core alone, out of sight, untouched and untouchable, yet some how strongly present, moving us.  Whatever  we do on the surface, Fate has bidden

… 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.

While we are distracted by all kinds of shiny things from toys to war, there remains ‘the unregarded river of our life’

What is this? Is there anything any of us can find in our own experience to help us understand what Matthew Arnold is talking about?

Of course there is the difficulty that even as we try to see it, it is no longer unregarded – we’ve started to look.  But perhaps looking is not the way – maybe it is more to do with feeling, after all, look how the poem started:

I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
But there’s a something in this breast…

It is, however nameless, there, despite the fact that we can’t see it and  we ‘seem to be’ ‘Eddying at large in blind uncertainty’.

Wonderful image of the bit of flotsam caught in the stream and twirling pointlessly – that’s us at play, at war. And yet… and yet – let’s read again:

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.

‘Driving on with it eternally’ is almost completely the opposite of ‘eddying at large in blind uncertainty’ – and the two actions are happening at once. On the surface, messing about, below the surface something serious and purposeful.

And this serious and purposeful part of the self is  somehow deliberately kept apart, kept away from us, so we can’t meddle with it. Would we now call it, in some cases,  ‘the unconscious’?

Are you aware of it, this stream, this permanence?

As I write I’m struggling to locate it, and I’m thinking about moments in life when it has seemed present. Both of my children as newborns. Some time looking at mountains. The colour of the sea lakes on the island of Mljet in Croatia. Shares of the colour blue. Some memories of church as a child. And oftentimes this has happened to me when reading – especially when reading Wordsworth. Is that what I’m talking about? I’m not sure.

More tomorrow.

Paradise Lost 9: When you ain’t got nothing/ you got nothing to lose

what kind of tree
What is going on with this tree in Greenbank Park? Is this a giant nest or a strange growth? Arborealists, help!

Continuing my weekly reading of Paradise Lost…

 

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, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

We’re still very near the beginning in Book 1. Last time, I’d read Beelzebub’s speech  which considered different possibilities re the devils fallen state and chiefly, what if they were still to do God’s bidding even here in Hell?  Satan, though racked with his own inner torments, is quick to respond and shut down doubt in his  second-in-command. worth reading the whole speech once through in and then we’ll go slowly:

Fall’n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.
But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

The line ‘Fall’n cherube, to be weak in misrerable’ is one of my favourites in the whole poem. Why? Well, it is true for one thing! It rings in my  heart and has done for many years,  as a way of  helping me think about  lots of different forms of  weakness, of misery and of the causes of  evil. I bring the line to life for myself by thinking of various instances of weakness I have known, having witnessed or experienced them.  Times when I or other people have felt or acted weakly, and I remember the misery that seems concomitant with such weakness.  I read it again and look up ‘miserable’ in the online etymological dictionary (main meaning: wretched).

I read it again in  the context of its sentence:

Fall’nCherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist.

Interesting that Satan introduces the idea of active weakness (doing)  first, before the more passive form (suffering) and that they seem in this context to be almost the same – it doesn’t matter whether you are doing or suffering, it remains the case that ‘to be weak is miserable’.

I wonder in what tone these words are spoken?  It feels sympathetic at first , ‘Fall’n cherube,’ feels almost affectionate but it quickly becomes  a sort of call to arms. Satan respondes very quickly to Beelzebub’s potential capitulation. ‘But of this be sure’  is a  rallying cry. See t how the tense remains in the present : we’re still fighting him, it’s not over, ‘contrary to his high will/Whom we resist.’ The acknowledgement of weakness is so fleeting!  It is made, but it is quickly transformed into something else, and that something else really says ‘we’re not weak, we’re active’.

If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.

Satan is a pragmatist: he doesn’t mind not winning the big battle, so long as he can continue: he’s content that  ‘oft times’ they ‘ may succeed’. Oft is one  limitation and feels a small one – often is not occasional. But there’s a bigger doubt in ‘may’, though the line is carried along by the hope in ‘succeed.’ So  we talk ourselves up.

Next comes a sentence I don’t think I’ve looked at in all my previous readings of the poem:

But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.

The storm of their defeat is coming to an end.  God  has gone quiet. What is this but a chance for Satan and his fellows to somehow act? The energy of  Satan’s will is an amazing power. It’s not  moments since we saw him at the nadir or despair – look back to line 55!

for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all;

But having Beelzebub to rally partly rouses him and now he is actively seeking to do something – to be weak is miserable, but his will is not to weakness:

Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

It’s interesting to note that Satan doesn’t understand the action of God. The storm of fury has ceased and Satan does not know why: ‘whether scorn/ Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.’ And it doesn’t matter, because the thing is to act and to

Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

Reinforcement is a building up, which may be possible if there is hope, resolution is reconcilation which will be necessary if there is no hope. Whatever else happens, Satan is going to find, it seems a way to continue to fight.  When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose, as Dylan sings.

All recognisable,  and all  too human.

More next week.

 

The Buried Life and Four Great Books

cotoneaster.JPG
Cotoneaster Doing Its Best in Calderstones Park, 10 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
On previous days I’d got to this point in Stanza 2,
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

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

 

Do I know? How do I know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

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

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

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

Time is up.

You never understood/ that it ain’t no good/you shouldn’t let other people/ get your kicks for you

 

calderstones morning 18 oct 1.JPG
Early morning near the playground at Calderstones, 18 October

Yesterday, among other things, I started reading The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. I could have started by giving you some facts about  Matthew Arnold –  his dates, or bits of history that might set a context for the poem or the man or his situation – MA was a depressive, MA lived at a time when faith in God was disintegrating, MA was unhappy at Oxford (I’ve just made that last one up).

 

None of that, true or untrue,  would have made the reality of the poem stronger and  actually, it would have taken away from the poem. One of the rules of Shared Reading is – Do Not Do Background. That’s substituting facts for direct  experience:  letting other people get your kicks for you

Of course rules need breaking sometimes, and I leave that to your judgement, but  97 times out of 100: no background, please!

Why? I can see there’s an argument for saying  that biography, social context, facts about the type of mead people drank, or when glass windows were invented, Mums, Dads and siblings and the political system all feed in to whatever a writer can write… but most of it is irrelevant to the direct experience of the poem.

But the direct experience is what we sometimes want to avoid because direct is  hard, like writing or doing your fifty lengths in the pool or teaching your kids discipline. I speak from personal experience. But after more than forty years of hard reading I am willing to risk the difficulty.  I have a long backlog of practice that tells me the direct experience is worth having.

But I can clearly remember the feeling at school and as a university and post-grad student, of wanting to avoid true engagement with the poem.  Of wanting to get round it or find a short-cut. I remember a feeling of dread and avoidance which was to do with facing the unknown, facing the task of creation, with only my own resources to get me through. That feeling of dread was to do with the work of it, having to make the huge effort of imagination and summon the  will which is needed to bring the inert poem flat on the page back to life. Taking responsibility for that  for act of re-creation.

The temptation to let someone else do that creative work for me was  very strong because my confidence was under-developed. F.R. Leavis  understands T.S. Eliot, I’d think,  let him  do the work and I’ll just say what he says. But this was me standing at the edge of the swimming bath hopping from one foot to another, afraid to jump in.  The experience of reading a poem can’t be done for you, and no amount of knowing the water temperature or when the pool was constructed or why it was in fashion to  have  marbled tiles will make any difference: you’ve always got to get into the water if you want to swim. Talking about what ‘Victorians’ knew isn’t helpful. The poem is its own thing, existing in its own force-field, free of time, if it is still a working poem. More to say on this another day.

Here’s it is, let’s read it all through then I’ll go back to where we had got up to yesterday
The Buried Life
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!                                                     5
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,                                                        10
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?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?                                   25
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                                                                                        30
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                                              35
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;                                                    40
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,                                       45
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;                                                  50
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,                                     55
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—                                    60
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                                                  65
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;                                                                                 70
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                                              75
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,                                                                            80
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.                                                        85
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.                                 90
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.                                            95
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Yesterday we’d got  to stanza two and had read  up to line 15. We’d seen Matthew Arnold  looking to his beloved;

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Yesterday, I’d got caught up with the words ‘even’ and ‘indeed’, and that had led me on to  think about the poem’s rhythm. Now I’m looking also at the rhymes, which are plentiful but not always patterned. In this second stanza we start with rhyming couplets (two lines which rhyme, one coming straight after the other: weak/speak, reveal/feel, conceal’d/reveal’d).

Me: Rhyming couplets – what are they like?

(I don’t want to make a definitive statement here, I want you to feel  the reality – get in the water and splash about the tell me what it feels like!).

You:  They are strong.

Me:  Yes I agree – Alas! is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart, and let it speak? – Can you say more? Why do they seem strong?

You: They kind of finish – they are rounded off. It’s as if  the thought is completed.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

Someone Else:  Yes, completed  in one way, but  it’s a question and there isn’t an answer! So in another way, it’s not complete.

Me:  Ok, so we’ve got a rhyming couplet where the rhymes are powerful and seem to  bring a conclusion, yet we’ve also got a question…

Someone Else: Well two questions, actually

You: Both with rhyming couplets! Conclusion  not concluded!

Someone else: Left hanging – and that’s the completeness of his thought  though isn’t it – he thinks ‘even  love can’t do it’, but they it’s like he adds, ‘can it?’

You: so the finish of the rhyme is undercut by the question mark?

Me:  You’re doing that yourself now!

You: But no rhyme! this time!

Me: Shall we go on? Look at this…

I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

You:  Hey up, Jane we’re out of time

Me: Oh blast! More tomorrow. Going for a swim now.

Once contraception became reliable, all human life changed – and what’s that got to do with Poetry and Social Enterprise?

grass in japanese gdn.jpg
Some sort of ornamental grass living life to full just outside the Japanese Garden at Calderstones, 17 October

Yesterday I went off on one, in a mild way, I hope, about women, woman, womanliness, being female, making a female shape in a world that has been, until very recently, rather male. I was asking myself if Shared Reading was a thing that a woman would make in the world, as opposed to say rugby football, which I bet was invented by a man or men. I was being a bit nervous of my own line of thought  because some women love rugby and some men love Shared Reading  and some women and men love both rugby and Shared Reading. I don’t think huge generalisations are generally helpful,  as humans are more varied and individual than such generalisations allow. I ought to be connecting this to  my reading of  Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, but my morning reading hour is not long enough for that.

Why did I start thinking about this?  First, I was thinking about the Women in Social Enterprise 100 (WISE 100) and  about the disparity between number of women leaders in normal life (not many)  and in the Social Enterprise sector (many). Then I started to wonder whether Shared Reading was a ‘female’ product – and if so why?

I don’t think feelings are the province solely of women – feelings are a key piece of  human equipment for living, like lips or lungs.  Because  of the way we’ve split human survival work up,  in general, men have gone more for action and women for relationship/emotional mapping/support though this generalisation of the female/male split  is belied by exceptions such as women warriors and  male contemplative monks. But that was in the millennia  before birth control:  once contraception became reliable and widespread, all human life changed.

Poetry has always been a place where exceptions find a home –  from Sappho to Sharon Olds, women have found a place for strong voices there, and men have found a place for feeling.

This poem by Matthew Arnold is a key text for Shared Reading because it holds a massive underlying truth: whatever we look like on the surface, there is something else in us, out of sight. Sometimes we don’t know what that is, where it is, or why it is making us weep.

If I was taking this to a Shared Reading group, I’d set aside the whole session, maybe two sessions for it. I’d read the whole poem through, telling people to just go with it without understanding it all and just to try to get the sense of the different movements of the poem in the first instance.

So, a read through:

The Buried Life
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.

Now I’d be asking my group to go back to the beginning and to try to situate it – how did this poem get started? What was happening? Where did it come from? Where are we? If we were making a film of this poem, what wold the scene look like, where is it and who is  there?

Read the opening again:

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.

People will suggest various readings but someone in any group will begin to see this as a pair of lovers, sham-arguing or teasing each other. Encourage that person! Yes, it’s just light-hearted banter:

 

and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!

Why, I wonder (and in my group, I’d be wondering this aloud)  does the pronoun switch between the plural (‘our’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’) and the singular (‘mine’, ‘I’, ‘thy’ ,’thy’,’thy’,’thy’) so much?

What would it be like to feel be using those pronouns – you, me, us –  in a conversation  where we were  massively distressed?

So many questions have to be asked to get the poem into our imaginations – what is a ‘nameless sadness’ – what  does it feel like? Why or how does it stroke so suddenly?The poem gets serious very suddenly. We’re in light loving play chat and then we’re out of our depth, and drowning, in that nameless sadness. And the fact there is still the possibility of light heartedness doesn’t help. That experience exists elsewhere and Matthew Arnold seems almost angry as he acknowledges, yes, it is possible to laugh it off:

Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!

To anyone who has been depressed ( funny word – we experience it now as if it were now a medical condition, like Chicken Pox, but it is a word about feeling: to be pressed down) to anyone who has been pressed down by a sad nameless feeling, the poem will be a jarring remembrance of a painful experience. For some readers it is liberating to find someone else getting the experience into words.

This first movement, section, stanza, ends with Arnold turning to his beloved and looking into her eyes in order to ‘read there, love! thy inmost soul’.  It is as if he hopes to read some message of hope or understanding or any match of any sort: are we connected? Do you know me? They gaze.

Now we get the break in the stanza, a space between the verses (what’s happening now in the room? He is sitting on the couch staring into her eyes, her face, she’s looking back but  nothing’s happening, he can’t find it, whatever it is… ) the  white space between the stanzas comes to an end, and

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?
Failure.

No amount of someone loving you will reach that place where feeling exerts its power. Can we get feelings into words? Even lovers – the closest relationship humans  probably have – cannot jump the gap.

I ask myself  what is the word ‘indeed’ doing there? I read the four lines again to feel if it has a place in the rhythm.

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?

As I read, I feel the word ‘even’ is linked to the ‘indeed’ in some way.  The first of these four lines is shorter than those which follow. I start to look at the poem’s metre. The lines seem to  alternate – not in a fixed pattern between lines with five stresses and lines with four. Let’s look back to the beginning:

Where  /  = a strong beat and  –  = a less strong beat
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
/           /           –     /       –      /       –       /          –        /
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
/       /        –        /          –       /        –       /

Metre is a funny thing to talk about in Shared Reading because it’s technical, like talking about 4/4 time in music when you’ve been listening to The Beatles.  It’s not the normal  conversation you’d have but nevertheless, 4/4 time is  there and may be worth noticing. So with poetry,  metre underpins and makes meaning.  It’s worth noticing even if you don’t understand anything about it.  Try tapping.  Are some of the taps strong and others less strong? In the lines above I felt that  both ‘light’ and ‘flows’ were strong taps, whereas  ‘our’ didn’t seem so.   There’s  no law about this, you have to feel it in your body.  That can be hard to do at first, but it’s (call me  weird) good fun.

More to say on what metre does the meaning, but that’s for tomorrow. I’ve gone over my time.

(A good book for this stuff, which I’ve had since it came out in 1996 is John Lennard’s  The Poetry Handbook. Looks like it is expensive and hard to come by secondhand,  but worth seeking out. )

 

Paradise Lost 8: Recognising The Fact

beech in park.JPG
The fact of a Beech tree in Calderstones Park . Deny it if you can!

My daily reading and writing habit has faltered because of pressure of work, travelling, personal stuff, having other kinds of writing to do and finally, loss of heart.  But yesterday I nearly got  back on the horse and today, here I am at the mounting block, ready to set off again. I was sorry, yesterday, not to get to Paradise Lost, which I’ve been reading on Sunday mornings, so I am going to continue with that now. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line of the home page which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

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, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

Last time, I’d been reading Satan’s first speech to Beelzebub (and himself) which ended with his avowed intention never to seek forgiveness for raising  impious war in heaven: I pick up again at the same place, at Book 1 line  111: seeking forgiveness seems an  appalling act of subservience to Satan (as it usually does, at least at the start of the process, to me):

… that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, [ 125 ]
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:

‘Ignominy and shame beneath this downfall’, Satan says  -and I wonder, why both ? Ignominy is shame, isn’t it? I look it up. Ignominy is related to loss of name, whereas shame seems more about being exposed, and has an interesting link to physical exposure which makes me think of Adam and Eve (as we’ll see in several years when we get  there) covering themselves with leaves post-fall, when they see themselves as naked and feel shame.

I notice that Satan  wants to distance himself from his first sense of  lowness and loss. Now  he has had a chance to regroup and gather his psychological force, asking for forgiveness is  seen as a comparator  – it’s worse than the fall itself, ‘beneath this downfall.’  And suddenly Satan is regaining power, and able to think about his situation  as  not lost and possible redeemable.

since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable,

He remembers that the empyreal (the very highest) angels are like Gods, but it is interesting to note that even here he exaggerates: they are not Gods but  only godlike. That slippage seems to come naturally to Satan. He is gathering strength, and  looks back at the recent defeat now as useful experience:

Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,

Such experience, he says,  can be put to good account as he commits himself to ensure the battle  continues:

We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable,

What I’m interested in here is  the reality of this as a human mechanism. Why do we so easily recognise Satan and the pattern of his mind? It’s all-too-human to keep going with some self-destructive pattern of thinking, telling yourself you are being  strong by sticking to it.  The denial of reality and the assertion of self in the face of it is a sort of  everyday breakage and fall. I’m thinking of some lines from a William Stafford poem I’ve been re-reading lately in A Ritual to Read To Each Other:

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

This is about lying, I think or perhaps my emphasis should fall more on recognising the truth. I’ve been reading about Stoicism and was moved last night to read that Stoics believe in a kind of universal unity, that the universe as a whole system may be God, a pattern, way and state of givenness. I think I believe that. The recognition of truth, of what is, is a key part of  a happy life, even if what is is painful. I think that is helpful to me as someone living without a conception of God and yet with a strong sense that there is always truth (or truths).  So I’m interested here to see that Satan, the baddest baddie, is characterised by an  inability to ‘recognise the fact’ of what has occurred.

Now Beelezebub speaks:

And him thus answer’d soon his bold Compeer.

O Prince, O Chief of many Throned Powers,
That led th’ imbattelld Seraphim to Warr
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds [ 130 ]
Fearless, endanger’d Heav’ns perpetual King;
And put to proof his high Supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate,
Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat [ 135 ]
Hath lost us Heav’n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,
As far as Gods and Heav’nly Essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns, [ 140 ]
Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallow’d up in endless misery.
But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow’rd such force as ours) [ 145 ]
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e’re his business be [ 150 ]
Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire,
Or do his Errands in the gloomy Deep;
What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

There’s an all-too-predictable slipperiness here in the line about why God won the war in heaven (‘Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate’). Using the William Stafford words, ‘know’ and recognise’, I’d say, like Satan, Beelzebub knows what happened. What happened was ‘strength’. But as soon as he has  said that word he must deny it, undercut it by deliberate non-recognition,  adding ‘chance or fate’ as possible elements.  Yet Beelzebub hasn’t yet come to a state of complete denial. He can still see ‘the fact’ of defeat:

Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat [ 135 ]
Hath lost us Heav’n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,

Beelzebub is less strong than Satan, and seems in two minds,

As far as Gods and Heav’nly Essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns, [ 140 ]
Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallow’d up in endless misery.

The phrase,  ‘the mind and spirit remains/Invincible, and vigour soon returns’, seems like phrase Satan himself might use but it is quickly followed by a more truthful thought : ‘Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state/ Here swallow’d up in endless misery.’

Beelzebub now allows various possibilities to run through his mind:

But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow’rd such force as ours) [ 145 ]
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e’re his business be [ 150 ]
Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire,
Or do his Errands in the gloomy Deep;
What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

Say God was the  all-powerful – what would it matter, Beelzebub asks himself, if vigour did return to us? Mightn’t that mean that we are here now simply to do His bidding?

What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

This is reality. And we know that Satan is going to have to speak against it and persuade Beelzebub to think differently. As he does:

Whereto with speedy words th’ Arch-fiend reply’d.

Fall’nCherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.

But that’s my hour up for today. So glad to be back.

Paradise Lost 7: Keeping Your Armour On

vilnius balloons
Balloons taking off in Vilnius

I’m continuing my weekly Sunday reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

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, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

Last week, I’d finished my reading time by reading but not thinking or writing about this opening speech by Satan:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

I wish I had the tech to do a Philip Collins (The Times) ‘the speech unspun’ on this! As I don’t, I’m going to first identify for myself the basic movements:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright:

Here Satan sets off in an uncharacteristically wobbly mode – his first word is ‘if’. He can barely recognise his erstwhile companion and there is real pain in the centre of this opening line, ‘But O how fall’n!’, and before we know it his thoughts are back in heaven, as if that is where they naturally tend. Is the word ‘happy’ a giveaway here, before Satan’s normally secure defenses are up? He’s not saying, or thinking,  ‘changed from how you were in that hell we used to inhabit where God kept us in subservience’ – which is the line he will take once he has got his psychological armour on. Vulnerable, newly broken, and without cover, he is  able to remember the realms of light as ‘happy’. He remembers too Beelzebub’s brightness, which made him (then) one of the brightest. Now? ‘If thou beest he…’ Is it you, my old companion?

If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin:

Now Satan begins to remember what is was that made them companions, ‘mutual league,/United thoughts and counsels, equal hope/And hazard  in the Glorious Enterprise,’. This is speechifying language and the beginning of Satan’s psychic armour, especially when he gets to ‘Glorious Enterprise’. It’s as if  Satan has already begun to remember  their time together as heroic, despite still not quite being able to recognise his comrade for ruin.

That feeling is relatively short-lived as the visible ruin and internal misery  must be acknowledged ‘now misery hath joyn’d/In equal ruin.’ Yet the thought ends with a colon, not a full-stop. And that colon is a place where Satan can gather himself for the speech that is  coming, which collects a self-aggrandising momentum from the way Satan puts the story into words. The honest naiveté of ‘Happy’ is quite gone already :

If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms?

Psychological armour goes to protect the will even when it knows it is wrong? Does he know, really believe, he was wrong? No, he can’t quite get to that. Only that first instrinctive, unprotected utterance to Beelzebub contains a sense of acknowledgement – ‘if thou beest he’. Perhap the armous is already on, undislodged from before – during the war in Heaven – pride came before the fall and pride remains. only that worry of loss in the ‘if’ is a little chink. Or is it that I just want to see that?

Things change, I think at the word ‘He’ in line 94, when Satan begins to see a bigger picture than simply their position as fallen beings. There’s also Him.  He.  After having acknowledged  ‘so much the stronger prov’d/He’ having uttered that pronoun the reality of ‘He’ and the fall begins to strike again. it is suddenly no longer possible to recall it simply as a Glorious Enterprise.

But having thought of Him, and even acknowledged ‘so much the stronger’, Satan must now undermine that thought in order to retain his own sense of identity (summed up perhaps in the phraseology of Glorious Enterprise). It’s ‘He with his thunder’. Not  ‘He with his superior powers’ ‘He with his brighter light’, ‘He with the all the inevitability of  our creator’…No, just ‘thunder’. Empty noise.

Ah, so ok, he proved stronger with that thunder, and ’till then who knew/The force of those dire Arms?’

Only the ‘dire arms’ could have forced an acknowledgement, however grudging, of God’s power. I didn’t know! Satan cries, like a child who hasn’t realised the parent really will take command of a situation. I thought I would get away with it! I thought I could boss you!

…yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne.

There’s no real acknowledge of what God is, only of the expression of power, thus God is a ‘Potent Victor’ (which seems in the same register as ‘Glorious Enterprise’) but remains ‘in his rage’. That rage doesn’t bother me, Satan boasts. He has no intention of  repenting nor changing;

that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,

I think it is important to remember Satan’s account of his motives here. Is he speaking the truth? I don’t know. But I want to note what he does say.  He has a fixt mind.  He seems pleased with that, proud of it. He feels disdain and it comes from a sense of injured merit.  Disdain – not deeming worthy. Do the opposite of deeming worthy. Funny that it is such an opposiotnal word. You have to have an opponent.  I’m  going to note these on my PL page as thnigs to remember later. (See top line).

Satan ends by claiming to have ‘shook his throne’, as if nearly winning (if he did nearly win, we don’t know, we have only his word for it) was almost the same as winning.  But it is that claim which seems to give him the courage to look up and continue his rebellion – we are no longer in the land of ‘if’ and ‘how fallen’:

What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall;

There are many instances of  these moves in real life, which I don’t have time to go into here. Everyone will have experienced that  moment of feeling beaten by something you know to be right and yet being unwilling or unnable to acknowledge that  rightness because it costs you (me) your pride.  I may abhor Satan but I don’t half recognise him.  Luckily for me and my  confessional mode that’s all I have time for today. Pick up again here next week.