Things being Brilliant at Kew

border at kew.JPG
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.

Small Fork Day (and the Wedding, still going on)

couch
Sneaky undergroud roots of my enemy, with something lovely in the background

Good morning, and for readers in the UK, happy Bank Holiday weekend. I need to get some gardening done! Spring is not in the air, but it is nearly here. I have much work to do to meet it. That work is the Battle Between Good and Evil in the Garden.

My Deeside patch is largely sand, despite 20 years of importing manure from the horse field up the road. And in this very easy-going sandy soil, so easy to slink through, lives my secret and then not so secret enemy: Couchgrass.

Couchgrass! The insidious underground creeper! I realised about 17 years ago that Couchgrass, secretive, entangling, hidden from sight, would never be defeated, would always be with me, whether I could see its brittle white tentacles or not.

A garden is an exercise in patience and courage and hope. There is always something nasty in the garden – ah Milton, thou should’st be living at this hour – you can’t get rid of it, you can’t  create a little clean patch where no bad stuff is, it’s not the nature of the planet! No, our job is to dream, and plant, but also to prop, prune, bind and tie, and to wield the small fork when necessary.

To make the best garden you can, even while the weeds, led by  the ringleader, Couchgrass, keep coming back at you, is the task of a lifetime. Poetry helps. And sharp forks.  Today, Couchgrass, is Small Fork Day. Beware the small fork.

But before I turn to Couchgrass, I turn to poetry. I’ve been reading Prothalamion, and I’m planning to finish it today. We were up to this bit:

Then forth they all out of their baskets drew
Great store of flowers, the honour of the field,
That to the sense did fragrant odours yield,
All which upon those goodly birds they threw,
And all the waves did strew,
That like old Peneus’ waters they did seem,
When down along by pleasant Tempe’s shore,
Scattered with flowers, through Thessaly they stream,
That they appear through lilies’ plenteous store,
Like a bride’s chamber floor.
Two of those nymphs meanwhile, two garlands bound,
Of freshest flowers which in that mead they found,
The which presenting all in trim array,
Their snowy foreheads therewithal they crowned,
Whilst one did sing this lay,
Prepared against that day,
Against their bridal day, which was not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

I want to read this very fast now, having broken my fear, and cleared some of my own anxiety about the Greek stuff. It’s not a poem for long and repeated contemplation (like for example Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, a poem much-read in many Shared Reading groups, and which I’ve found I can come back to time after time. Not like any poem by George Herbert, whom I want to read tomorrow.) In the catalogue of poems, it’s a happy song, and the lyrics are sweet, but not deep. The verse above is all flowers (ha! no couchgrass here!). The nymphs dressing the swans in crowns of flowers. One nymph sings the following verse, which I am skipping over. It’s a  blessing and a  looking to a happy future. The bridal party approaches London, and Spenser is moved to remember, for a moment his own situation (remember how at the beginning, he was worried about some workplace matter?). Now they are near the Inns of Court (I’m guessing)

Next whereunto there stands a stately place,

Where oft I gained gifts and goodly grace
Of that great lord, which therein wont to dwell,
Whose want too well now feels my friendless case.
But ah, here fits not well
Old woes but joys to tell
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Spenser is out of favour, perhaps out of favour with a great Lord (who? haven’t looked up, don’t know my history) ‘whose want too well now feels my friendless case.’ A moment of tricky syntax, where even though we’re motoring now, a reader would want to go carefully and make sure she’d understood. The want of the great lord’s favour: I’m reading want as absence, lack. This lack ‘too well now feels’  – it is interesting that as soon as the idea of the loss, the absence of favour comes into mind, Spenser despite being in the middle of a rather glorious wedding – feels it, feels the nub of it, ‘friendless’. And yet he is at the wedding! so ‘here fits not well / Old woes but joys to tell’. And yet he can’t now get political thoughts out of his mind. Can’t help but wonder why he has let this into the poem, must have some relevance…need to look at a footnote!

Had a quick look at Wikepedia. Hmm, helps a bit. It’s a double marriage! Makes sense that the two swans are the two brides, not the bridegrooms. That’s why they are so white. I should have seen that in the poem itself.  The nymphs are bridesmaids…Wonder if  the next bit  is about the father of the women getting married? It’s a trumpet blast of praise, like raising a toast;

Yet therein now doth lodge a noble peer,
Great England’s glory, and the world’s wide wonder,
Whose dreadful name late through all Spain did thunder,
And Hercules’ two pillars standing near
Did make to quake and fear:
Fair branch of honour, flower of chivalry,
That fillest England with thy triumph’s fame,
Joy have thou of thy noble victory,
And endless happiness of thine own name
That promiseth the same:
That through thy prowess and victorious arms,
Thy country may be freed from foreign harms;
And great Elisa’s glorious name may ring
Through all the world, filled with thy wide alarms,
Which some brave Muse may sing
To ages following,
Upon the bridal day, which is not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Here I am near the end but the couchgrass is calling…I feel as if Prothalamion has been a kind of poetry work-out… I like the flowers, the Thames, the slow rich joy of it, and the sunny atmosphere. I’m interested in the poet mentioning but putting aside his own difficulties (but is it odd,  or a pointed  political act, to leave them in the finished poem?). I don’t regret it because spending a couple of hours on it has clarified something: I want a poem that is more than story or song. The bit I’m most interested in here is Spenser’s own state of being. I want more of that. Which is why I’m reading George Herbert tomorrow.

couch2
Forks awaiting the call to arms

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

euphorbia close.JPG
Euphorbia asserting its noble beauty in an unkind world

March has been a difficult  month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.

Instead,  after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff,  I woke up with these words in my mind;

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.

The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of  such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.

So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.

Well, grandchildren  – all babies! –  are good and make me feel great joy. I think  on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the  walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.

viburnum close.JPG

An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got  to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind.  It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’,  ‘Oh evil day’  as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good.  Is that how ‘evil’ starts?

Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;

…Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:

I love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.

viburnum form.JPG

 

 

Noticing feels like love

 

viburnum.JPG
Viburnum in front garden, delicious  sweet clove scent

 

Wordsworth’s  Intimations of Immortality.

I’m picking up yesterday’s reading, which I was suggesting could be good in a Shared Reading group.  I hadn’t got beyond the title, so this morning I am determined to crack on and  make some progress.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Wordsworth begins with a loss and memories of what is lost (‘there was a time when…’) but we quickly move from the expected, ‘earth and every common sight’ to something extraordinary. ‘Every common sight’ was ‘apparelled in celestial light’.  This opening stanza hinges on the third line, ‘ To me did seem’. This is personal.

I notice now the rhymes (stream, seem, dream/sight, light) which at first I didn’t notice. They give a kind of order to what at first seemed a slight sense of  disorder – lines are of different lengths and the whole stanza seems to me like something broken. It’s all heading towards

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

I feel as if Wordsworth is looking, distractedly, worriedly for  the thing that is lost, the way of seeing, or being, that is gone. It’s like having woken up in a grey rainy concrete reality, no light. Is it like being depressed? You can’t fix it by trying to see things differently.  (I’m still noticing the way the rhymes cut against the line length chaos (‘yore/more’, ‘may/day’.)

He looks again, seeing something, yes but it feels as if everything is prefaced with an invisible ‘but’;

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

It’s  worth giving these lines a time to unfold –  it’s good to remember the joy we feel sometimes at catching a glimpse of a rainbow, at the loveliness of a rose.  It’s worth stopping to notice how the  objects Wordsworth is describing seem to have agency;

The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,

It’s not just the way we look at them, Wordsworth seems to be suggesting, but  how these natural wonders are active in the universe. Yes – accept all that, know it. And can appreciate it each day, the ‘sunshine is a glorious birth’  – which makes me think this is not like depression, not the grey concrete hat. He is able to  recognise joy, enjoy joy. There is even something ‘glorious’ in it all. But even so something is missing;

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

I wonder about the relation of  ‘glorious’ to ‘a glory’. Does ‘glorious’ seem a shadow, an off-shoot? Is  ‘ glory’ something  particular, magnificent, a massive noun denoting a real thing.  and that thing is gone. Is ‘past away’ (wonder if that was synonym for death in Wordsworth’s time as it is now

What I’m doing this morning as I read is trying to get back to fresh, uncluttered reading of the poem, without my old memories of having read it many times before. I’m not trying to connect it to my own experiences  – not yet – I’m just trying to read what is there as best as I can.  But at some point I am going to want to ask myself – do I know what he is talking about? Is this  known, or is it new information about something I haven’t experienced

If I was reading this in a Shared Reading group I’d be asking a lot of questions to get people thinking about memories of ‘rose’, ‘moon’, feelings of ‘glorious’. And I’d want to spend time talking about the difference between ‘glorious’ and ‘a glory’. And then at some point, I’d want to know, has anyone ever felt this?

I think  I experience it but I’m not sure I’m conscious of it. I know that  I am on the look out for  the ‘glorious’ and see it everywhere in nature, trees, moss, flowers, all natural forms, rock, water, the buzzards flying slow and circular overhead in the park yesterday. That noticing feels like love. I’m not sure it is the same thing Wordsworth is mourning when he says,

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

I don’t think I know what he is talking about. I don’t recognise it. That’s ok – I’d be saying to my group. Let’s read on and see if it gets any clearer. But not today – out of time.

Yesterday I didn’t get finished with ‘Quickness’ by Henry Vaughan. Sun is shining today in West Kirby and I want to get out for a walk or to the garden before the wind brings rain.  So I must be quick myself.

I begin today not by re-reading the poem (do that in a moment) but by looking up the word ‘quick’. One of my favourite sites, The Online Etymological Dictionary, tells me that in amongst the roots of ‘quick’ = lively,  ‘ there is a notion of ‘sudden’ or ‘soon over.”. Yes indeed. See all those spirits in Lincoln in The Bardo for more on that.

I re-read the poem:

Quickness

False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

Thou art a moon-like toil, a blind
Self-posing state,
A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity.

Thou art a toilsome mole, or less;
A moving mist;
But life is what none can express:
A quickness which my God hath kissed.

Yesterday seemed to be about  the distinction between  false and true and this morning as I read I’m still aware of that but also  of something about types of time. I wonder now how long Vaughan has been  aware of the ‘false life’ – is it about going along with things you know to be unreal? How, sometimes, in order to get along with other people everybody has to do that? It’s deliberate, the action of  life perpetuated by people who ‘would not have the true come on.’ Trying to think of myself doing this – it’s easy enough to think of others! –

Thinking about doing jury service, and how much of a false life was the life of that court, trying its faulty best for justice. How much a humanly arranged show, the dance laid out, the semi-tricks, presentational slants of the lawyers, the sorry human reality, the likely truth almost invisible, glanced between the cracks in the facade. Yet I didn’t stand up and say I refuse to do my jury service – take me to prison! Fine me! I went along with false life because having ‘the true come on’ was simply not possible in that set-up, under those conditions. That’s what we call, in the political arena, the art of the possible.

I’m remembering Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’.

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—

Hard , living in the human world, to  know even where your own line is,sometimes, despite ‘spirit’, despite ‘power’. But back to the sense of time  in ‘Quickness’. False life seems to take forever, (‘when wilt thou be gone?’) but real life seems both permanent, ‘fixed’ and yet also  ‘without Eternity’

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity.

It is ‘no chance or fit’ , that’s to say not a random accident, not a stop-start thing, but ‘ever bright’. Yet I don’t think Vaughan thinks we experience it all the time. It pleases ‘without Eternity’.

As if it was  there, like the  sun, shining all the time, but we only experience it occasionally – maybe when the foil of false life somehow gets out of the way. And yet behind the cloud, the ‘moving mist’, life continues to affect us, it

Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity

Quickness, life, affects us by  vivifying us – bringing us to life, enlivening us.

I’m thinking of the ‘quick and dead’ (the phrase comes from the Book of Common Prayer, a work Vaughan was familiar with and means ‘ the living and the dead’), and of  the ways in which spirit is quickened – fleetingly, sometimes with an out-of-time experience. That makes me think that ‘life’ in this poem is more a state of being – a mystical state and suddenly as I reread the last few lines ,the thing seems blown open:

But life is what none can express:
A quickness which my God hath kissed.

I’m aware that real life is fleeting, that within that real life there are moments of otherness which seem to put me in a  different state, that is amazing that there is life – in all its forms –  and that something mysterious (‘my God’)  kisses stuff, matter, beings, time itself, into liveliness. That’s a miracle.

Henry Vaughan. Think I will read some more.

Clouds have blown over but I’m still going for the walk.