The Buried Life: Holding the Line

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

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

I’m at this point:
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

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

And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.

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

But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.

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

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

Let’s read the section again:

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

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

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

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

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

I notice the failure of language here:

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

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

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

Bohm writes;

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

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

But I should go back to the poem:

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

 

The Buried Life

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

Yesterday’s Daily Reading Practice  was one of those background days, days when you clean your desk and  set out a new notebook, a day of prep. Not much happened in the way of actual reading and writing. I’m working on reading ‘the Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold, and you will find a text of the poem here. I’m pasting it below for ease of reference but I  see that the stanza breaks don’t always show up. You can see them (they are important resting places and  markers of new thought)  over on The Poetry Foundation version.

I’d got as far as ‘driving on with it eternally’ when I felt myself going sideways to  look at some other texts which were helping me think about the central experience describe by – or alluded to – in ‘The Buried Life’. Those other reading experiences (Bohm’s ‘wholeness’ as a form of health, and Doris Lessing’s Zimbabwean veldt experience of  cosmic wholeness in her novel, Martha Quest – see yesterday’s post) were  useful because they helped me think about, remember, re-experience, the thing Matthew Arnold is talking about – an experience hard to put into words,  which he calls  ‘a nameless something’. I didn’t want to go on with my reading of the poem until I’d re-established in my own mind my own sense of what he was talking about.

Here’s ‘The Buried Life’, read it all through to get going:

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

I’m going to start again today at  the line beginning ‘But often, in the world’s most crowded streets…’

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

I don’t personally feel this  feeling ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ or in ‘the din of strife’: I feel it after that or before it, or away from it. So I read the lines, and believe that Matthew Arnold felt it in those busy, humanly demanding places, but I don’t find a match very easily. Sometimes, ‘in the world’s most crowded streets’ I feel exhilaration, sometimes (I’m sorry to admit) disgust, but rarely a desire for knowledge of the ‘buried life’. I’m too distracted, dislocated.

Even so, I recognise the desire, which mostly I experience in quieter situations. The peculiar blue colour of the sea lakes on the island of Mljet (which I’ve visited twice and would go to again any number of times – drawn entirely by the blue of the water) gave me this feeling, a sort of  frustration of not being able to get at whatever it powerfully was, moving me, making me alert to ‘a something’  each time I saw the colour calling to me through the trees.  It was as if the blue might make me cry, filled me with nameless feelings –  I’m sure there will be psycho-synaesthetic explanations for this, but I felt, we’re on holiday, and having a lovely time, and it is warm and we are walking through the forest  and yet ‘Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!’

When Matthew Arnold feels it here, in this line about the crowded streets, his desire is to get to it, to know it in language, although it is an ‘unspeakable desire’ and cannot be put into language.

It’s interesting to note that David Bohm, when thinking about wholeness attributes much of  human fragmentation on language. If we can name it we can separate it out.  We can call it ‘ sea lake’ or ‘blue’ or ‘desk’ or ‘sorrow’ or ‘little animal’ or ‘grasses’ but if we  didn’t have language, we’d just have to experience it all, everything, as one.  In Martha Quest’s moment of illumination the lines between named separate things blur:

There was a slow integration, during which she, and the little animals, and the moving grasses, and the sunwarmed trees, and the slopes of the silvery mealies, and the great dome of blue light overhead, and the stones of the earth under her feet, became one, shuddering together in a dissolution of dancing atoms.

I’m thinking, though I haven’t got the book at hand, of the moment in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life where a new born baby  sees a bunch of irises: Byatt describes what the baby sees in pretty much the same way.

For Matthew Arnold this unspeakable desire becomes

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

Normally, our fire and restless force is spent creating things, things like ‘the worlds most crowded streets’ but now for a moment Matthew Arnold contemplates  turning his human power towards understanding  ‘our true, original course’. Course is a good word here , connecting to watercourse, the channel that a flowing body of water flows through, so our thoughts go back the idea of this true under-lie as like a hidden stream. That underground stream is us, and is what we flow through, and the way in which we go – ‘whence our lives come and where they go.’

And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
But time is up – will go on with this tomorrow.

The Buried Life: what is that moment?

mljet blue.JPG
A sketchy intimation of the very moving blue of the sea lake,  Mljet, Croatia

I’m continuing my reading of ‘The Buried Life’ which you’ll find here. This text  from the Poetry Foundation shows all the stanza line breaks, which are for some readers missing from the versions I’m posting. If you are joining newly today, try reading the whole thing, with plenty of pauses, following the run of sentences rather than the line-endings:

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

I read the poem again just now to get it in my mind, but in fact it has been in my mind since yesterday, as yesterday thought (about the moment this poem tries to hold, and when or how I have experienced it) has been playing at the back of my mind nonstop…

This is for me a thought about wholeness or unity, which came to mind more clearly last night when I started reading David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order,  which I’d been led to by  reading Synchronicity by  Joseph Jaworski.

 

Bohm.JPG
David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order

Reading the opening chapter of Bohm’s book, which is about fragmentation and wholeness, I was struck by the relation he sets up between health and wholeness.

It is instructive to consider that the word ‘health’ in English is based on an Anglo-Saxon word ‘hale’ meaning ‘whole’: that is, to be healthy is to be whole, which is I think, roughly the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘shalem’. Likewise ,the English ‘holy’ is based on the same root as ‘whole’. All of this indicates man has sensed always that wholeness or integrity is an absolute necessity to make life worth living.

There’s a relation here between Bohm’s sense of wholeness and the longing to create the conditions for wholeness which lie behind The Peckham Experiment, and  thus, to a certain extent, behind The Reader’s  community at Calderstones. As an outsider, I’d also say  I sense this  behind the Bromley By Bow Centre. (See the latest edition of The Reader  magazine for an interview with Bromley’s CEO Rob Trimble).

But  what I  most thought about  when I read that paragraph in Bohm was a passage in Doris Lessing’s early novel, Martha Quest, in which  the  heroine, Martha, undergoes a profound  and frightening experience where the universe  becomes one whole unfragmented whole.  The book is set in Rhodesia (which later became Zimbabwe). On page 61 in my old paperback, sixteen year old Martha is walking home from the Station across the veldt alone when an  experience she has had before (and dismissed as part of her ‘religious phase’ ) begins to happen to her again:

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

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

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing

This is an extreme version perhaps of the intimation which  provokes Matthew Arnold’s poem, carried in the hint of the ‘nameless something’.

I’ve had  experience of that  ‘a something’  many times. If I was able to call it ‘God’ I  would, but there is something about my conception of God that doesn’t let me do this…(perhaps it is because as a child I was brought up as a Catholic,  believing that various higher powers, some of  whom were out to trip me up, others to look out for me, had access to my innermost thoughts.  ( I know most adult Catholics don’t believe anything like this, but I’m talking about the inner life of a six year old  in a provincial parish in 1961). I know that is not what religious people think ( George Herbert  is my exemplar) but it remains, that childish caricature somewhere in my mind: I cannot feel a guiding consciousness and trying to think about what a guiding consciousness might be leads me back to the Old Man. When I read George Herbert it’s not like this, and at those times I feel I might be  getting close.

       And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
         I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh, my only light,
                      It cannot be
                      That I am he
         On whom thy tempests fell all night

Read The Flower here. And in the end I am not George Herbert, so I have a longing, and a space where  no thing  fills that longing, and I  manage it by reading Wordsworth, George Eliot, George Herbert, Milton and others who seem to inhabit that space. Reading ‘The Buried Life’, I feel Matthew Arnold also has such a gap.   For me sometimes some natural experiences seem to fill it. Particularly the colour of the sea lakes on the Croatian island of Mljet (see picture above, though it is not good enough to convey the warm intensity of that blue).

I have  hardly read a word of ‘The Buried Life’ today, but all this has been part of my  reading, I hope. Glad to have typed out the Lessing quote, anyway.

A Universe-bending proposition from Thomas Traherne

black fuschia.JPG
Climbing black fuschia in the rain, back garden, 7 August

I am continuing to read the Thomas Traherne poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ : search ‘Traherne’ and you’ll find the posts. Here’s the poem – always worth re-reading aloud to get into the flow;

I’m adding numbers to the stanzas, for easy of reference.

Shadows in the water

1

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

 

2

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

3

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

4

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

5

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

6

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

7

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

8

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

9

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

10

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

Yesterday I’d got as far as stanza 8, and that’s where I’m picking up today:

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Here Traherne looks more closely –  ‘through the chink’ –  at the people in the other world of the puddle/window. These are people who ‘stand upon the brink’,  at the very edge of our world. Traherne asks about particularities – what faces do these people have? And then the surprise realisation:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

There’s a strong slide of meaning, possible meaning slipping into possible meaning, in the syntax of these lines – who is seeing what, where? The slippage is compounded by the rhymes: I, my, see, me, we.

I my companions see
In you, another me.

I just don’t know who ‘my companions’ are here – the people under the water?  Or the people alongside me in this world? Yes, it’s that latter: it means  ‘I and my companions see’. The syntax (the ways the words, punctuation, lines are arranged)  is so clever here: the more you look the more you can’t tell what you are seeing, as if the puddle has ripples in it which break up the  reflection into lots of parts, yet they are all still essentially ‘I’, ‘my companions’, ‘you’, ‘me’.

Finally we get to a resting place where the water, the vision, clams and we see clearly:

Our second selves these shadows be.

And now, in stanza 9, having achieved a moment of calm, Traherne flings a new, dizzying question into the pool:

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Now Traherne unleashes a stream of questions which can’t be answered: it’s as if the walls of the universe have fallen away. How far does this go? What does that unendingness mean? ‘What secret borders on those ends?’  When Traherne asks ‘Are lofty heavens hurled/ ’bout your inferior world’  it is as if he in free-fall, not knowing which way is up. Is there an ‘up’ in this place we look down into? If  there are reflections in that other world, what do they reflect? Are they ‘the representatives/ Of other peoples’ distant lives?’

I’m remembering something Doris Lessing wrote in her ‘Remarks’ at the beginning of The Sirian Experiments.

It has been said that everything man is capable of imagining has its counterpart somewhere else, in a different level of reality.

Traherne loves to inhabit this place between fixed points – the place where those different levels of reality meet, or touch, and  he is not all scared, but childlike, full of wonder at the  far-reachingness of  his own possible thought, or experience.

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

He puts the question, ‘what can it mean?’ squarely and without fear. What can it mean that  ‘I do the image view, In other selves’? – It means ‘unknown joys’ await him.

The idea of the ‘thin skin’ between this world and another pleases him – he wants to be ‘admitted in.’ You get the feeling that is what he has wanted all along – to dive in, to go there…there is a fascination with the world reflected in the puddle, and with the thoughts that then grow from that experience

There’s nothing in the poem about  heaven, Christianity, any sort of expounding of doctrine, though Traherne was a priest.  If there was only this poem in existence Traherne would seem to me a true Romantic –  though he lived way before ‘Romanticism’ emerged as a movement, and  was unknown to Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets, because his work was unknown and unpublished until into the twentieth century.

Why do I say Romantic? Because he apprehends the world through his feelings and tries to think from there. Because he has a naive, childlike belief in those first feelings, which I’m glad to celebrate. Because ‘God’ doesn’t seem to come with human thinking attached, but rather as a direct and ordinary experience – the limilessness of God in a puddle.

And that’s what this poem is, isn’t it?  A small thing happens – child looks in puddle, see other  people there, other sky. From that experience comes this echoing hall of mirrors universe/time/space bending proposition which is about the thin barriers between states of being,  between life and death, this earth and heaven, whatever that is – this is what Wordsworth, a hundred years or so  later will call an of immortality’.

Read about Thomas Traherne here.