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

 

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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.

Continuing to read Levertov’s Essex in Vilnius

Vlinius uni
University of Vilnius

I’m here  in Vilnius to be part of this conference – yesterday  I attended talks on  the C18 information overload and how people coped with mass printing (skim read!),  the use of Twitter as a way of  getting people to talk about and share reading experiences in Italy, and the examination of  the reading of Shakespeare Sonnets in terms of  both perceived individual meaning and recorded eye-tracking ( yes, the two things overlap). Also about developing a psychological model for what happens when we ‘are lost in a book’. How can such a state be understood? It felt good to stand back from the day-to-day work and see people thinking about what we do!

And in the queue for lunch I talked with a librarian from Guelph (Canada), whose work centres on artificial intelligence, about AI and empathy. This man had once been a letterpress printer. All that in one lifetime! And he had a lovely real little bound, openable, real paper-paged book as a badge. The picture does not do it justice.

bookbadge
The book badge of Michael Ridley

Vlinius is a beautiful city. I’ve never seen so much baroque architecture in one place. I’m staying in a hotel that was once a monastery, and yesterday I heard the most ethereal singing from across the courtyard and couldn’t tell if it was real or ghostly.

After a day of  research presentations it was a treat to be part of the conference dinner in the amazing National Library.

nat lib

nat lib2

 

But I need to get on  with my Daily Reading Practice. I’ve been reading this poem by Denise Levertov, and plan to finish it today.

I begin my practice by reading it through. Now after – how many? four five six? –  days spent with this poem, I am beginning to feel I know it’s rhythms and meanings.

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

I’d come to what may be the last movement of the poem, which seems curiously live here in Vilnius, a city decimated, physically, culturally and spiritually by the KGB during the Soviet period, and in which 55,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation in the second world war.  This last section  looks at the movement of people from  old Europe to the New World, from places like Vilnius to New York, and somehow casts strong light on early geo-rooted experience.

Yesterday my  husband Phil Davis’  presentation looked at using digital text manipulation to show  different parts of a Shakespeare sonnet taking on colour, expanding, contracting moving, linking with other words.  I think  of that today as I read. The line from near the beginning of the poem,  ‘ I am Essex-born’ looms large in today’s reading, particularly once I reread the end of the poem.

All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

I notice this last movement is a whole sentence.  Yesterday one of the things Phil spoke about was the relation of line ending to sentence – prose keeps going, but poetry breaks the line and that break is a piece of poetic equipment.

All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,

Here I am in Domus Maria in the walled city of Vilnius.  This place and  thousands like it will have sent thousands, millions, to the new world. All the Ivans, all the Marias. Those people, like Levertov herself, were then severed from their geophysical roots but also took them with them. How strangely moving I have found it to see potato pancakes, potato dumplings here for sale in Lithuanian restaurants. I think of  the knishes I’ve eaten in New York and Austin, Texas. They came from somewhere like this.

All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image,

How once we separated from that early map of where we come from, all new bits seem odd, always ‘fragments’, both of language and of culture, of experience we don’t quite now to assimilate. Denise Levertov, living her experience of childhood in Essex did not have to know ‘how to put them together nor how to join/image with image’: things simply, naturally, experientatially were. You don’t need a map of a country you know inside out, have lived in, have  made significant with your own experience. You only need a map of unknown or forgotten places. Levertov had forgotten  the intimate details of her being in Essex.

Suddenly – or is it slowly! it has taken the whole poem, after all – Levertov realises the psychological  breakage of the immigrant:

… now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

She remembers that which drove her, ‘burning with desire/for the world’s great splendours’, perhaps a characteristic of all those who emigrate. And the experience of  looking at this ‘old map/made long before I was born’ reminds her not only of her leaving but also of what made her – those active creating verbs of the early section of the poem. And now ‘in a far country’ she seems  to get back to  her beginning, or the beginning of consciousness;

….the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

It’s like the beginning of the world, or the beginning of human culture, like the Garden of Eden or the very beginning of creation, isn’t it , with its  ‘first river/walls of the garden, the first light.’ A gentle, a golden, peace descends at the end of the moment with that final word, ‘light’. Back to before everything.

I reread the entire poem, knowing the place, as T.S Eliot said, for the first time.

Lovely.

“A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

Denise Levertov and Essex : Getting Stuck and Not Minding

domus maria
View from my room at Domus Maria, Vilnius, Lithuania, 27 September

Last week I had started  reading Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England’ and am coming back to it this week. Search ‘Denise Levertov’ previous posts.

I’d got as far as the lines ‘the place of law/ where my birth and marriage are recorded/ and the death of my father’. Rereading the whole poem to get the run of it now. don’t forget, when reading aloud, to aim for the punctuation marks rather than line endings, the line endings are smaller than pauses – slight inflections of the rhythm:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

Writing last time  I looked some things up in Wikipedia but I don’t think I’ll do that today. I’ll pretend its the olden days when there was no knowing facts or possible facts in an instant, only reading the poem and letting it do its work.

Picking up at

                                               Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

I don’t know what Woodford Wells is or was, but given what we’ve read so far, it doesn’t matter. We only need to know that looking at a map of Essex, Levertov sees these names and they are the names of places she has  known as a child or young woman. The white statue, after whom the house is named, ‘forlorn in its garden’ seems a sign for the  sisters, who meet and part. At first I’m uncertain as to who these sisters may be – like Philippa, perhaps, real historical figures the poet is imagining. But later when I read ‘ where peace befell us’ I think the sisters are Denise and her sibling, a real incident and the parting was not good, perhaps, because peace was required later…’not once but many times’. I ask myself about the brackets here;

(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

what or whom was /is forgotten? possibly forgotten, because the question mark seems to ask is it forgotten? Now we are in a hard to see area where questions keep arising – does this mean memory is failing, can’t locate precise events?

I feel uncertain and my reading is faltering. So I look again, read again, going back to the poem:

                    Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

This time I notice something about the syntactical pattern, the action of the verb being less strong than in previous formulations, where the verbs seemed to make Denise – called , heard , held, drowned, knew etc. But this time the verb is ‘saw’, as if the place merely witnessed.

What was forgotten? The meeting and parting? Woodford Wells?

I look closely at the lines containing the bracketed thought. I think the bracket says – not part of the Woodford Wells thought.  Some sub-category, some place more private?

(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).

‘The hill before Thaxted?’ Is she  questioning her sister, the pronoun us seems to point to that – is this a shared thought, shared memory? Did they fall out a lot, did they  make up sometimes for some reason on that hill?

I am stuck, but I don’t mind. I’m trying to enter the mind and memory and experience of Denise Levertov. I’ve got a long way in and  happy to leave this bit a  bit blurry. It feels, because it involves a relationship with someone else, more private than some of the other memories.

I leave it  there for today and  close down to walk down the hill from this convent/hotel to the Conference venue.

“A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

Continuing with Denise Levertov in Essex: to look up or not to look up?

office view this misty morn
View from my office at Calderstones this misty morning, 25 September

Last week I had started  reading Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England’ and am coming back to it now. Search ‘Denise Levertov’ previous posts.

I’d got as far as the line ‘Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry’  but am going to start by rereading the whole thing to get myself into it again.

 

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

I’d been thinking, when I stopped writing on Thursday last week, about the way Denise Levertov has set up the sentence structures to make places bring her into being (‘Cranbrook Wash called me…’). And now I look at the next big clause:

Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house.

Unlike the actions of the other places, ‘Wanstead’ seems to do something truly developmental. It ‘drew me over and over into its basic poetry’. I want to know what Wanstead is! But before I look it up I’m going to see what I can make of this line, alone, by myself, just me and it.

I think it is a house and formal garden, the basic poetry being the repetitions of box and lavender you get in those french or italiante big houses gardens, gardens built on pattern, in repetition, in ‘over and over’. Even the lake is patterned, is ‘serpentine’. You go back many times to such a place, which in itself becomes a pattern, ‘over and over’, and you experience the rhythms of the poetry of place. She sees also the past or feels past music there, ghosts of rhythms past, ‘in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves’.  Bass viols provide the  bass line – continuo – of music by Purcell, Handel ( I don’t know about this – I’m guessing! I know what continuo sounds like because I love listening to cello music and it often features). Bass viols are old, not modern instruments. Is the house itself a ruin, or is the view through the trees simply mist and obscure?

I check wikipedia – yes, house demolished. Public park.

What this looking up adds isn’t much, only the  strengthening of my sense that what Levertov is looking at here is suburban outer London – much like me  seeing vikings in the River Dee from the top of Thurstaston Hill.

There are  acres of terraces and semis, grand houses and bungalows below in Caldy and West Kirby but the past sometimes outblazes them when I look down from the hill.  It’s always good to  do your own  imagining work first, before looking up or looking at footnotes.  You often get it right, which helps build up the sense that you can understand this stuff ithout experts, which is the sense we most want to develop in Shared Reading. With  or without Wikipedia I’d have got that feeling of  the ancient presence of  history under the ordinary now from the mention of Ilford, a place I slightly know. And what I know is acres of semis:

In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father.

Denise is  remembering or perhaps tracing with her finger on the map and reciting these places names, letting each arrive in consciousness with the accumulated personal memories of  childhood, which are ancient in their own way and rich and call up rich language, which transforms the suburban landscape into something almost mythic. ‘The multitudes’  is a word I think I remember from Old Testament  lessons at my Catholic Primary School. The multitudes here seem signified by the ‘light of flaring sundown’ , what would in ordinary suburban language be a crowd is a multitude. A lot of Jews live (or lived) in Ilford: is Levertov Jewish, would the word ‘multitude’ be part of her childhood religious study, as it was, in a different childhood religion, of my mine?

I’m not going to look that up – it doesn’t matter. It matters that the thought has been ignited in my mind as I read and  I keep reading now: Kings! What could be more Old Testament! Are those Seven Kings in their ‘sombre starry robes’ a pub sign? But there also a place, Seven Kings, a ‘place of law’ (again, that seems an ancient human function, not simply a Registry Office) ‘where my birth and marriage are recorded/and the death of my father.’

Time’s up, more tomorrow. I hope. Travelling to Lithuania, will be posting from the airport.

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

 

 

 

Paradise Lost 6: In Which I Resolve Not To Argue with John Milton

chaos taking hold in the front garden
Chaos taking hold (or nature asserting itself) in the front garden

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.

But to Hell, my friends, let us now turn. Last  week in PL5 I’d been thinking about the difference between being in Hell, or being dead, and being alive or with the possibility of hope. in Hell, ‘hope never comes that comes to all’. Let’s pick up at line 70.

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

First thing I want to think about is ‘Eternal Justice’, which I think really means ‘God’. Can it really be just that a place should be prepared  in which ‘hope never comes that comes to all’? I’m going to reread that sentence –

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

Prepar’d, ordain’d, set… this was made in advance for something  God knew would happen. A God who acts like this can seem  merely punishing, ungenerous, lacking compassion.  He creates everything, some of it bad and then creates a punishment for that bad stuff.

I need to translate such a thought into something I am able to accept, if I am to accept this God Milton paints for me. And I want to do that rather than argue with Milton, so I am going to think  of  God and hell as something like opposing states – that if there is one and it is natural, the given, then the other must naturally follow.  Let me try again, then.

God creates something imbued with freedom to be alive in any way it wants.  There is a natural order – God at the centre,  the most powerful light in all the regions of light,  but adherence to this order is not compulsory, it is not fixed. Everything in  creation can choose how it wants to be. But those that choose to be ‘rebellious’ will find themselves in a place where ‘hope never comes that comes to all.’

Of course there is something in me that is rebellious: I don’t want to do what I am told by God or anyone, so a part of me, even as I am writing, is very  angry on behalf of Satan and the rebel angels.

But I’m trying not to think in that simple way.  I’m trying to think about  how things are: in my experience, when I have done bad things I have felt bad. I don’t need a God the Father to make me feel bad, it just is that. I ask myself , is Hell then a bigger version of this? If you try to take God’s place -as the most powerful , the all powerful- then naturally you fail and fall into despair? Hhm, the introduction of power makes me feel rebellious again. I try to start my thought again. I really do not want to fall out with John Milton.

I need to understand what he  means by God and to try to translate that into something I can understand.

I ask myself, is there anything in the poem so far that can help me with that?  I reread, going quickly through the lines looking for clues to Milton’s idea of God:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

First I notice the fourth word of the poem, ‘disobedience’, and note that  this is a universe in which ‘disobedience’; is a key factor. I ask myself what I think of that.  The angry  anarchic child in me wants to say, no! I don’t accept any rule of law. But  another part of me does believe that there are underlying laws (of love or  the good, I don’t know what to call them) at play in the life I have experienced.  And if there are laws then of course there may be disobedience.

I’m thinking of what may seem a weird analogy.

Say someone was  doing a violent crime , a rape or murderous attack. In the moment of the doing, in the time leading up to the moments of the doing, the  attacker might well feel a kind of power. In a sense this person is rebelling against human being – the law – instinctive as well as civil, most of the time, being: we don’t kill or hurt each other. But for some reason, the attacker wants or needs or chooses to so attack. He feels powerful and as if he is in control, or that the act of violence will give him some kind of control. (I’m thinking of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment but also of real murderers, real rapists).

If there were no human kind-ness (assuming this to be the basis of human law) the attacker would  continue to feel powerful and in control after his attack. But  there is human kind-ness, and growing from that, in most places, there is civil law. When you have attacked someone you have violated those laws. They exist even in a place, such as a war zone, where there is no rule of law. They exist whatever you as the attacker think.  Your state of mind does not change the outer reality.

Later, the fact of having done the bad act becomes its own punishment – as  it does for Raskolnikov. If, for a murderer, for an attacker, that act never becomes bad, we would say, the murderer is mad, the rapist is a psychopath. And by that we would mean: he does not share our sense of human kindness. He has created – in opposition to human kind –  his own, false, reality.

Using such an analogy to translate Satan and Hell and God helps me see them in a different way, so that I stop wanting to protect and forgive Satan’s rebelliousness.  Do I want to protect and forgive a murderer, rapist, attacker while they continue to  shout their right to do such harm because they are so powerful?

I might argue back to myself, saying: but all Satan has done is challenge God. But isn’t that possible at many levels? The initial challenge  (do you accept a greater law than your own desire) is the basic  question the poem asks me to ask myself. We’ll come back to this when we see  Eve’s fall. (My mind has jumped to AA and the requirement to acknowledge a power greater than yourself. Thinking of some of the self-justified damage alcoholics and other addicts do and have to re-frame in order to recover).

Second I notice, ‘And chiefly thou, O Spirit that dost prefer/ Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure’, which seems a clue to the place God might take in Milton’s heart (is this a different kind of thing to the story we are getting in the poem? Did Satan  have access to a spirit in his heart? Does the murderer?)

Thirdly I notice ‘eternal providence’, which seems connected to the  thing I started with today, the ‘prepar’d, ordain’d, set… ‘  provision of Hell as a place for the rebellious. Providence is a word to do with seeing ahead, providing for what may be ahead, fore-seeing and preparing for what is fore-seen. Milton believes that  God has and does fore-see everything. Everything that may possibly be is already known, as if God could see time and space and action and possible action all at once.  The result of being the murderer is hell, and it exists, as it were, before the crime is committed. It’s always there, whether I commit the crime or not. The fact that that hell is there does not mean anyone or anything made me do it.

So now I am thinking, I need two (or more!) lenses for reading the poem. The first is the immediate – I’m in a dramatic story, and Satan, its huge anti-hero, is about to speak for the first time.  But also I need the  long distance lens of attempts to understand the God Milton shows me (is God the right word? or perhaps ‘universe’ – no, not big enough!, ‘the creation’? No, not big enough, God is bigger than that. It is the all, the everything? The reality?).

But we’re out of time.

I’m just going to finish this morning’s reading by reading this first speech of Satan (to Beelzebub)  and we’ll come back and start here next week:

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.

 

 

Who made what? Or what made who? Still reading Denise Levertov

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The large trough, Calderstones Park

I’ve been reading Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England’ for the past couple of days. Picking up  at the line ‘Pergo Park knew me ther’, but just going reread the whole thing to get myself in it.

I don’t know if people running Shared Reading groups ever read long poems over a few weeks – tell me! I’ve done that in the past and it is surprisingly easily – partly, as Reader Leaders know, many group members are really surprised to find they love reading poetry. Partly, it is oddly easy to pick up concentration like picking up your crochet and just getting going again,  or like keeping an eye on the league positions without realising you are stopping and starting that activity.  So a poem can settle back into focus very quickly.

Don’t be afraid, or rather, you may be afraid, as I was on Tuesday when I decided to start reading this poem. But don’t let being afraid stop you!  It’s natural to be bothered by not knowing or not getting it.  The answer to that anxiety is to ask questions, to not be bothered if you can’t find a definitive answer, and to notice things. Soon you’ll be lost in the thick of feeling and thought response and anxieties will disappear.

So let’s read it:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

What most strikes me as I reread today is something to do with the personality of relationship between the nouns and verbs: these places are like people – are they?:

Cranbrook Wash called me…Valentines heard my resolves…Roding held my head…Pergo Park knew me…Stanford Rivers lost me…Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home…Wanstead drew me…

This is a rhythm, perhaps first and foremost a rhythm, built from the most simple of syntactical structures (subject/verb/object) (in this cases: the place+verb of action +me). I bbelieve – now I have noticed it – that this structure matters. But why? It does something to me as I read – but what? I want to understand that something. I reread:

Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,

I think what is happening is that ‘me’ (coming in each line) is being made, created, called into consciousness by these places. You remember yourself in a place. ‘Pergo Park knew me’ – in prose-speak that would be ‘I knew Pargo Park’.  But this word order, making the place the subject of the sentence, puts the ownership of the action away from the child. The child  is the product of the place, not simply its memory-repository.

I think of a memory of Neston Park in my childhood. Purple and gold bearded iris growing somewhere near a stream. My grandfather Syd Smith loving them. A small bank, a sandstone wall, gravel, sun, the colour of purple and gold, the velvet of petal. Him, loving the iris.

That memory may have been made in very early childhood, probably before I went to school.

I (subject) remember (verb)  it (object).

I’m the owner, the maker the creator,  in that sentence. But did it make part of me?

Iris (subject) made (verb)  me (object).

Suddenly our roles and  powers are reversed.  And that’s what Denise has done her, with the whole of the Western Part of the Country of Essex in England… she has made it make her.

Going to London today. Time to go.

iris.jpg

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.