Just Started: Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire

Berry

I’ve been reading Wendell Berry for thirty years. Because I am narrow-minded, I often read the same things by Wendell Berry over and over again.

The poem, ‘The Slip’, which offers perspective and hope  at times of loss, and which has been of practical spirit-use to me many times, would certainly be on the list if I was only allowed ten poems on a desert island.

In prose I’ve read his essay ‘The Loss of the University’ scores of times, absorbing and re-absorbing its information. I read that essay in Standing On Earth, a book every reader should own, just for that essay. Oh, let’s change everything, please. In the contemporary university, he writes,

Literature ceases to be the meeting ground of all readers of the common tongue and becomes only the occasion of a deafening clatter about literature. Teachers and students read the great songs and stories to learn about them, not to learn from them.

That simple distinction  between ‘about’ and ‘from’ has been reverberating in my mind and actions ever since I first it. Over and over, I read.

I have bought Standing on Earth ten times and given it away to others.

My friend gave me this new collection – the essential Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Kingsnorth – for Christmas. Last night  – aching from my weekend of hard gardening –  I picked it up from the bedside table and began to read the first piece in the book, ‘A Native Hill’. I seemed to have read it before but when I checked it wasn’t in Standing on Earth.  I think I might have read it at Christmas, but  forgotten to write about it.  Writing helps memory.  How good it is to have a friend to push me out of my narrow, repetitive reading habits.

The essay is about the decision to return to Kentucky, to the place of Berry’s birth,  and live there for the rest of his life.  Berry wanted to be a writer. Where should a writer be in the USA? Why NYC, of course.  And having got there and found the literary world, and a job at NY university, Berry changed his mind and  headed back home, a move seen by some as perhaps a perverse decision and a poor career move. But back home, and a home he had chosen, as in commitment, as marriage, as planting, he found himself rooted deeper than ever before.

I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things – the wild plants and animals, the natural processes, the local places – and to articulate my observations and memories. My language increased and strengthened, and sent my mind into the place like a live root system. And so what has become the usual order of things reversed itself with me; my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.

I don’t have time to read this paragraph today. Except to note that I was profoundly moved by the thought of  ‘brief coherences’ of daily action, by those ‘articulations of energy’.

That, I thought is why I long to be able to steady into habit instead of being chaotic. That is why  I love gardening. I may do it in an unstructured way, but it  this growing world has lots of its own rhythms, rhythms of season and structure, colour and habit, which seem to pull me into a kind of order, too.

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Euphorbia Martinii

Silas Marner Day 40: Unspeakable Ignorance re Human Character

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Dark Red Rhododendron in the Azalea walk at Calderstones

Oh, I’ve been having trouble with myself, lost my rhythms and struggling to do anything other than get my daily work at The Reader done – I’ve been busy interviewing new people for roles at The Reader, probably the most important thing I have to do there, preparing for  the AESOP Conference, and then travelling to meet with Flemish colleagues… but also simply lost. rhythms, habits, do not come easily to me and somehow I lost them and now I am struggling to get them back.  Family came to visit. Our old people  have needed time and attention. None  of which stops me writing at 6.00 am but it has stopped me.

Yesterday I said to myself, you’ve got to get it back. You’ve got to. I was angry and used my anger to  dig up and destroy a massive ivy  root I’ve been battling in the garden. I don’t really care why I am like this – my chaotic childhood, oh, I’m sick of hearing about it –  I care about why I can’t consistently be different. I want order!

Yesterday it came to a head and I took myself to task in the garden as a way of fighting it out. I dug and bashed and cursed and sweated and cut my finger and sawed and heaved and jimmied and cursed this tortured thing out of the ground. It’s about as big as a bull’s head. It’s the root of a large-leaved ivy  I planted about twenty years ago.  I planted it! I planted it! I did it myself! Oh, ignorance.

root

I was filthy and exhausted and had a sore finger. I felt better.  I had a long bath and, as so many times before, agreed to  ‘forgive myself the lot’ as Yeats says, and resolved to try to pick up again. ‘The urge to destroy is also the urge to create…’ as Mikhail Bakunin said.

Books I’ve been reading away from this page include Tara Westover’s Educated. (Yes, lost  the rhythm of recording ‘Just Started’ – need to do a batch lot).  This is book about the awakening of a mind: the story of an end-of-the-world Mormon girl from a mountain in Utah learning to think outside of her family. Last night I read a section where she discusses  being touched by a single line from John Stuart Mill in On the Subjugation of Women. Marvellous section. The sentence: ‘It is a subject on which nothing final can be known’ …Mill writes of ‘women’, and Tara  –  bullied, abused and subjugated as a female  in her family – responds from her deepest, most hidden self.

Blood rushed to my brain. I felt an animating surge of adrenalin, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are a woman.

this morning when I came to my desk I looked up On The Subjugation of Women, a book I’ve not read in  more than thirty years.  Gosh. It’s very good. I would like to read it again. Saturday Dayschool perhaps, along with some of  George Eliot’s women?

Why that connection? This was one of the sentences that struck me as I browsed:

Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character.

I was looking over my last post on Silas Marner, (find a full text of the novel here) and  had been thinking about George Eliot as a mind-mapper, a literary psychologist.  She does exactly what John Stuart Mill thinks is needful to be done. She shines the light of intelligent observation on the ‘influences which form human character’.

We’d been reading about Nancy Cass (nee Lammeter), and her instinctive repugnance to the idea of adoption. The narrative switches adroitly to Godfrey, and the reader understands, with a shock, that Godfrey is thinking of adopting not just any child, but his own child, Eppie, happily adopted by Silas.

Godfrey had from the first specified Eppie, then about twelve years old, as a child suitable for them to adopt. It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life–provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved. Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower? It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This becomes an analysis of how Godfrey could make such a callous mistake when George Eliot  looks beyond any desire he might have stated himself, to a general law she observes in many humans. Godfrey thinks,

Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower?

This is Godfrey’s inner voice, thinking its own thoughts.

Next comes George Eliot’s thought, as she observes her subject:

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it.

The ‘common fallacy’ is the law of behaviour, observable over countless subjects: you want something to happen so you think it will be easy to make it happen. (Thinking of myself and the need to develop habits. Want them! Should be easy! Not easy! Failed again!). Now George Eliot turns her attention to the relations between people of different classes and their ability to understand each other.  The tone here (‘we must remember’) is one that includes us, as the reader, with her as the scientific observer.

This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience.

It’s personally damning of Godfrey as well as damning  our social structures: Godfrey ‘had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience’.

The lack of power to enter into another’s experience is also self-damaging, I think, Godfrey can’t imagine what it is or means to be Silas, but he is also hidden, disguised from himself, like Tara, like me.

George Eliot believed that women were no different to men in that we are all subject to our experience and education. Men had more of it but, as with Cass here, that more was often also limiting.  How are we to get out of our ignorance and lack of self and experience understanding?  Education, my dears, but education of a particular sort. Education that speaks to us in the places we need it – as John Stuart Mill spoke to Tara Westover.

Joseph Gold writes in The Story Species,

Literature is a form of language that humans have evolved to help  themselves cope with the world they inhabit. Creating and sharing complex stories is an adaptation of language to help humans survive well.

Tara’s story of the voice coming out of the darkness to a place of darkness within her, its meaning as yet unknown, is a wonderful example of  the way in which literature may be the means of education (and survival). Godfrey Cass needs to read more.

As for me? Just got to come here and do it every day.

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

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Nasturtiums in the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More next week.

The Buried Life: A Bolt Shot Back

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Small, intensely scented Viburnum flowers, spicing the garden air

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

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

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

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

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

 

Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

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

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

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

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Myrtle berries, tremendous harvest

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

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

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

Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

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

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

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

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

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

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

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

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

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

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

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

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

 

Things being Brilliant at Kew

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Agapanthus and Echinacea  in  The Broad Walk Border at Kew

Yesterday I went to Kew Gardens to attend the People’s Postcode Lottery Gathering 2017 – imagine a family and friends  party on a large-scale, with third cousins from every part of the  country and others flying in from much farther flung places, catch-up chats, meeting new people, delightful sausage rolls, very hot in the conservatory – phew –  and instead of the bouncy castle,  an inspirational speaker in the form of  Jonathan Peach to remind everyone to be the best version of themselves they could be, ‘every day is a best pants  day’.  That certainly gave me something to think about, and  this morning I surveyed my underwear drawer with new eyes.

I had set out early from my friends’ place in Highbury by overground train, intending to arrive early – the gathering was to start  about 11.00, and Kew Gardens  opens at 10.00. I’ve never been there before so was hoping I’d get an hours walk in before the day started to enjoy the Great Broad Walk Border. And so I did! Imagine you are an LFC supporter visiting Anfield for the first time, or a clothes maniac at British Fashion Week. That’s how this gardener felt at Kew,  drunk on it,  physically light-headed, overwhelmed with  delight.

Talk about inspiration. The word must be about fresh spirit –  I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary. Yes – inhaling, breathing in, being breathed into…I felt the great work of Kew inspiring me like lovely  great heady lungfuls of air.

I haven’t managed to do for my garden what this blog has helped me do for reading and writing –  developing (an almost) daily practice. My poor garden, love it as I do, suffers from lack of my loving time and attention – I’m so intermittent! But  seeing those borders –  the art of horticulture at the height of  energetic excellence – hugely encouraged me.

I don’t expect Jonathan Peach got out for a walk during the day,  but if he had, he’d have seen something being brilliant, made by the brilliance of a very dedicated team: I saw  lots of staff and volunteers working. But I also thought about the people I couldn’t see right now – the planners and plantsmen and women, the marketeers and accountants, the cleaners,  who had made ‘Kew’ happen. The Walk was big enough not to seem busy, but there were plenty of visitors at 10.10am. Gorgeous to see how many small children were enjoying the flowers.

I loved the plans/180 drawings that allowed me to  read the names of everything in each section of the border. I imagined someone working on the plans and later when Jonathan spoke about ‘right to left’ thinking, I remembered those plans.

kew plan
Plan of one section of the Great Broad Walk Borders

I remembered in my early twenties reading a short story by Virginia Woolf, ‘Kew Gardens’.  You’ll find it here. I remembered the blank puzzlement the story provoked, and when I reread it  this morning,  I felt some of that again. I read  everything Virginia Woolf ever wrote in my early twenties – she was a woman writer! I wanted a role model! But she was so posh! I don’t know if I realised that at the time, how class-bound she was… how far-off and other-world. She was writing about worlds I had  never imagined, never seen. Kew Gardens! And those people strolling. Somehow this connects to the odd sense of relief I had when I visited D.H. Lawrence’s childhood home in Bestwood – the two up two down terrace was just like the house my grandparents  had lived in, at  Eldon Terrace, Neston.  I can remember  a strong feeling of  connection –  he knows about my life. Not a feeling I usually seek in literature – at least not in that top level  way, we worethe same boots  kind of way.  This is something to think about another day.

When I reread the story this morning I  thought, she has caught some of that sense of life-connection between the flowers, the snail, the people, as if the people are part of the life of the gardens, moving in and  through them:

The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed. The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and then to see that the children were not too far behind. The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go on with his thoughts.

I liked very much the lens moving from close up minutiae to expanded horizon, like the almost scientific observation of the snail:

In the oval flower bed the snail, whose shell had been stained red, blue, and yellow for the space of two minutes or so, now appeared to be moving very slightly in its shell, and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled down as it passed over them. It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it, differing in this respect from the singular high stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it, and waited for a second with its antennæ trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture–all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal. Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.

And the procession of passers-by is still there –  first these Americans, then this grandfather and the three little girls, now two  nannies with  blond  babies in buggies, now an Indian family taking many pictures, here a serious photographer very close to the Coneflowers,  there an old lady reading on a  recessed bench, and now me, on my way to the Gathering…

I’d mentioned Pope yesterday and Clare  responded to remind me both of  Virginia Woolf and  the wonderful dog Diogenes in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. That  made me think I might sometime read  things about dogs here…meanwhile  I enjoyed the statue of the White Greyhound of Richmond, and here he is, outside the Palm House:

dog at kew.JPG

What to read in a Shared Reading group: Coleridge’s Work Without Hope

hostas
Hostas in the long border at Calderstones. Slugs are leaving their lairs…

Yesterday’s reading of Silas Marner, concentrating on Silas need to weave and to hoard money, reminded me of ‘Work Without Hope’ by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so I’ve chosen that for today’s reading. If we were meeting in a weekly Shared Reading group, and in the thick of chapter two of Silas,  I might well bring it along next time…but it would need most of a session for itself. Short it may be  but it doesn’t seem a quick read.

Here’s a poem about feeling out of kilter with everything:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
         Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
The mention of the slugs sets up a sort of revulsion in me.  When I hear, or remember, ‘All nature seems at work’, there’s an instinct of pleasure – hurray, life is coming back. Then Coleridge completely undercuts that good feeling with a bad one. Slugs!
He goes back to  parts of nature I am more keen on ( bees, birds) but he’s put those  slugs in my mind, and there they are,  bothering me. Still, I try to get over it and think of the bees and the birds and what they promise:
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
Winter isn’t quite as horrible as the slugs, but I’m conscious that various  forces are pulling me about here as I read – good Spring, bad winter, good Nature, horrible slugs. Now I come to a reason for this  tussle: Coleridge feels at odds with the movement of the earth.
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
It cannot quite be the case that Coleridge is the ‘sole unbusy thing’ yet the feeling he suffers  is strong and leads to a lot of  strong negatives  in the final line of this stanza. It’s as if the mind  is moving to and from, attracted and repulsed by good liveliness and then bad retreat. Good things in that last  line – honey, pair, build, sing. I feel their presence. But also feel the almost deadening power of those four times repeated ‘nors’.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
In the second stanza Coleridge remembers  good things he has experienced in the past – he tells us of ‘amaranths and nectar’. He may be thinking about lovely things in nature or he may be  using these as metaphors for pleasure, creativity, joy, fulfillment. He does not feel these things now, though he has known them in the past. The final couplet may be a go at explaining why, but it is hard to get at, though the rhyme gives the impression of something being concluded.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
‘Work without hope’ is the phrase that connected my reading of Silas to this poem. Does Silas ‘work without hope’?  Until he falls in love with the collection of coins he does. Now his ‘hope’ is for the gold, an outcome of the work. But there is no hope for him, for example in human relationships. no hope, no working at it.
Fo9r Coleridge, there may nectar ( for which I’m reading  creative pleasure) but without hope, it cannot be retained. What’s the hope? I feel stuck and need to translate this into something I can practically understand!
Let me turn to bindweed. ‘Bindweed!’ said John the Gardner, when I was looking at the long border at Calderstones with him last week, ‘If you’ve got that you’ll never get rid of it.’
Well I have got it. When I see it my heart sinks. There is work without hope. I will continue to try to get rid of it, but I do feel it has already beaten me. I can do an hour’s weeding but bindweed can undercut my pleasure (it doesn’t actually, because I don’t really care about it, so this isn’t a very good example, but bear with me! Imagine I do really care and feel that bindweed is ruining my garden). If bindweed had so overrun my garden my work wold be work without hope.
But back to the poem – what about Coleridge? He adds bit more ‘And Hope without an object cannot live’.
What’s the object?  And why is this all mixed up? It seems as though Coleridge is telling me this in the wrong order – I feel I am having to twist myself round to follow what he means in this closing couplet.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
Let me  start again, at the end  – hope without an object cannot live.  When Silas was banished from the Lantern Yard community he had no hope because he had no object- he knew he  could not get back. It was all over.  Now he must work ( to live) and does so, mechanically. There is no pleasure in it – work is ‘nectar in a seive’. Until he starts to love the gold, then he has hope.
But for Coleridge, working without hope, the sad thing  is there is still a strange taste of ‘nectar’ – you just can’t keep hold of it, ‘nectar in a seive.’
Coleridge doesn’t give any explanations: this is a simply description of the state he is in. Great thing about it? He has been creative even with his depression. He has produced something.
Lots of questions arise: Does it bother you to read a poem about what we’d probably call depression? What would group members want to talk about? What would you do as a Reader Leader to create a safe place for talking about the feelings of negativity the poem might illuminate?
But time is up for today.

George Herbert, a Blackbird, the Midwife and still battling Couchgrass

blackbird

I am going to continue my reading of George Herbert’s ‘Affliction III’. Anyone here yesterday will have seen that I spent nearly an hour on the first line, a record of slowness, even for me. Today I’ll try to do line two!

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

I’m struck by Herbert’s idea of God being ‘in’ the grief. As if grief were a complex mixture of  compounded elements that only seems, at first glance, to be one solid thing. When you look more carefully, or in more dimensions, ‘grief’ contains lots of different elements, time-zones, experiences, meanings.

An example: yesterday and the day before I was complaining about my battle with couchgrass, an interminable struggle which I know I can’t win. It’s grief all right.  But if I only see it as grief (which I’m afraid is oftentimes the case) then I can feel overcome. It’s a one-dimensional experience, which is all sadness. Yesterday when I was working at it, a young male blackbird started visiting the patch I’d cleared, picking out worms and grubs to take back to his demanding  family in the big Hebe at the side of the garden. We spent a companionable hour or more  together, working alongside each other. I’ve never seen a blackbird so close. He came with inches of my boot and then of my hand.

I  love blackbirds, the sharpness of their outline and eye, the determination of their songs flung  from the high gable, the top branch, the telegraph pole. They are usually rather distant birds. So I was moved by his presence and as he worked  right beside me, I thought this wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for the battle against couchgrass.

But I don’t want to give the couchgrass too much credit, that’s to say it could have been any pernicious weed: it was my struggle, not the enemy, that contained the potential for the lovely experience. But there is no denying my struggle was provoked by the enemy. Thus evil has a place in creation? I always find I baulk against that – in the end  I’d like no evil, only good. I want a garden without couchgrass!

But a yin and yang view of the universe and all that’s in it is certainly part of George Herbert’s experience. For me, the blackbird experience was ‘in’ the couchgrass experience. Other things, too. The comforting smell of the spring earth was ‘in’ it, the close-up contemplation of  the ornamental strawberry plant root-system, the finding my favourite geranium in flower, hidden there amongst  choking weed. (Read a good post about Geranium Pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’ here.)

If you translate Herbert’s word ‘God’ into ‘good’ (as I do) then you have a helpful thought. If ‘good’ is ‘in’ any bad experience, then bad does not have such great, such overpowering, dominion. I am resolved to  weed out the couch, but in a more accepting frame of mind. I’ll be looking for (and finding) good while I am doing it. 

When Herbert sighs ‘Oh God’ and realises God is ‘in’ the situation, it  presages  relief. Something beyond him and his pain is in control of (guiding) what is happening. From ‘guide’ Herbert’s mind leaps to the word ‘govern’. It’s almost as if he feels now someone else (‘Thou’) has the management of the situation, will handle it. For us it’s a hard leap to King (ultimate leader) but  for George Herbert, with the word ‘govern’ comes the idea of King. Thus in  line 4, the punishing ‘rod’ of a  bullying schoolteacher, donkey-beater, becomes the symbol of power, not the violent use of it.

To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :

If you feel something awful is being done to you by someone with power over you, it will feel like ‘rod’, a big stick to beat you with. If you feel you are being led, guided, even (hard word/thought for a modern person?) ‘ruled’ by someone who has no need to beat you, someone who has natural authority, symbolised by ‘sceptre’… might you feel someone else is in control, and might that help?

I waver back and forth here. I want to be in control of my self and my life, and grown-up enough to take responsibility for situations in which I find myself, but I can think of situations in life where I was glad to know there was someone else who was in control – for example the midwife, when I was giving birth.  When we are pushed to the limit, and are breaking, it is good to know someone else is going to care for us and help hold it together. For George Herbert, fearing the ‘unruly’ elements inside himself, the presence of ‘Thou’ is a lifesaver.

Hadst Thou not had Thy part,                                                               5
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.

The next three lines seem difficult. 

But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?

I’ll leave it there for today and get back to the garden.