Shelter from the Storm

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Wet bougainvillea, fallen trumpet vine, marble floor, Zakynthos, 26 June

While England bakes, Zakynthos bathes…

Storm started yesterday and has been going for more than 24 hours – feel like a character in Wide Sargasso Sea, though can’t actually remember if there is a monsoon-like storm in that book. It’s the heat and tropical greenery that is reminding me of the atmosphere of a novel I’ve not read for 40 years. Maybe also the shutters, which make the house dark.

Yesterday evening the electricity went off for a few hours and our kindly host walked round from his house to check we were ok. Sure, it’s just a storm, I said, ‘No, no, is no storm,’ he assured me. ‘Just a little rain…’ The thunder sounded like Greek Gods throwing mountains in the dark of the night. This morning he brought us that most English of gifts, an umbrella.

Like all people living on small islands, these Zakynthiots understand rough weather. The tiny white church on the rocky promontory on the far side of the bay was built, our host tells us, for sailors to head for when the seas were rough. Did those storm-tossed sailors pray there or find shelter from the storm, or are they the same thing? Light-house, bunk-house, sanctuary.

With rain driving in through the shutters before breakfast, we watched an episode of The Leftovers. That’s a holiday for you! A stunning box-set in bed, with Greek coffee. Stunning, as in hit on forehead with hammer.

Also watched an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the series has grown. Tom co-developed the scripts with  Damon Lindelof  of Lost fame. They make a great team, if the first one and a half series of The Leftovers is anything to go by. I didn’t know about Tom Perrotta before I stumbled across the series by googling ‘best box sets for 2018’, in preparation for my holiday, but I am glad I’ve found him. Comes from the Syracuse school of writing and has been around a long time. In the interview Tom says he hopes people who find the story through the TV series will go on to read the novel.

Say but the word, Tom. After ordering his entire oeuvre online via Amazon, all now waiting for me when I get home, I cooked eggs which I bought up on the hillside yesterday in a tiny everything-sold-here-Super Market.

Giant inflatable pink flamingo pool-floats, anti-mosquito plugs, UHT milk, Buckfast Wine (Bucky! Here! Those monks have something to answer for…) drain plungers, jars of touristic honey, jars of marmite, The Harvard Business Review at nearly E17 a pop and many, many books by Victoria Coren, all in Italian. What more could a holidaying tourist want? Oh, billions of stuffed soft toys in green velour. This shop is one of the world centres for stuffed soft toys in green velour. The other centres are all the other Super Markets in the Vasilikos area of Zakynthos.

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The HBR I could not bring myself to buy in the Super Market

The eggs were of fine quality, and had seemed an anomaly in that Super Market, small and farmyard dirty, they had been collected from the olive grove outside, where some of the olive trees had trunks a couple of metres round. I thought, those olives must have been planted by the Venetians four hundred years ago. Across the way a little from the Super Market, Dopia’s House sold home-cooked food including possibly the best Zucchini Balls civilisation has ever known. These, like the soft toys, were green and roundish and of variable size, but to my mind, a better buy than the velour turtles. (Only later did I read the sign helpfully placed by the Dopia House family. My ‘guess the age of the trees’ was way out).

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But to return to Tom Perrotta and The Leftovers.  My fellow viewer and I watch an episode and turn to stare at each other in the opposite of a high-five, clutching hands, our eyes locked in shared amazement or mock terror. How they can make a box set that is so painful!

And later I ask myself – why am I looking for this stuff, un-answerable questions, in novels and poetry and boxsets? Is this what I read for? And mostly, it is. I want literature (and stories I may find in other media) to help me formulate these questions even if no answers are forthcoming: What are we? Why are we? How are we?

I don’t want escapism. Or if I do, I want to escape the storm by being somewhere where I can see the storm, really know it. I want lighthouse, bunk-house and sanctuary. I want stories, novels, poems, plays, box-sets to give me language and thoughts and lives about this difficult and troubling real life I live. What I am loving about The Leftovers is its unremitting insistence: there are storms and there are moments of calm, there is terror and there is love. And that’s all, folks!

There’s not much writing like this going on anywhere, and I’m happy to find it in any format. When can we watch the next episode?

And when can I have my next installment of Dopia’s Courgette Balls?

Currently reading : 

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean,  The Humourist by Russell Kane

 

 

 

 

Making Translations

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I am writing on a little wooden porch, at the back of a little wooden house, which is perched on a little wooded hillside in Tyreso, south of Stockholm, where I have come for a  holiday now that the work in Uppsala is done. It’s cold, and lots of birds are singing. Nearby, occasionally  I can hear a horse whinnying, a rooster crowing. I’m wrapped up, wearing my coat and Swedish felt slippers and two blankets. I have hot coffee. I’ll only last so long out here, even so.

For the last week or so I have been reading daily portions of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, which you can read in full here. Yesterday I read the section, ‘Behold the child…’ and tried to integrate some of the thoughts I’d had while Phil was speaking about CRILS research at a Medical Humanities seminar at the University of Uppsala.

In today’s stanza Wordsworth gives room to the thought which had opened, or re-opened, at the end of the last : ‘as if his whole vocation/were endless imitation’. The child, as we understood in the earlier parts of the  poem, while practising (through play, through imitation) becoming a ‘common day’  adult, is yet trailing clouds of glory. This new stanza, a new run at it, opens in a changed tone of voice.

The previous stanza seemed, for the most part, utterly ordinary and domestic – two doting parents and a child on the floor with all his play-stuff spread about,  a scene from any home.  But now, with this new opening, that memory of heaven lying about us in our infancy comes back hard and changes the lights. Wordsworth is moved to something like awe, to reverence, and he speaks directly to the child (‘Thou’), who is no longer the ordinary individual child on the carpet at our feet, but a kind of summation of all children, all childhood;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

I’m going to go slowly here and look first at the opening 10 lines;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;

In this moment of clarification,  Wordsworth sees both the  external ‘semblance’ (is the semblance  the look, the as it were, imitation?) of the  small playing child and the ‘Soul’s immensity’, and sees, too, how the external appearance of the child  can ‘belie’ the soul. It is as if the truest reality is the  hardest one to see – the reality of soul. The outer ‘semblance’ covers it. Worth a quick look at ‘belie’ in the dictionary – to lie about, to fail to give a true impression. Semblance too –  outward appearance, especially when the reality is different.  In that one line, there are three words about the  falseness of an exterior appearance all pointing to what is going to come in the next line, ‘thy soul’s immensity.’

I want to stop here and ask myself what I make of this. All the time I am reading I am conscious of this difference between Wordsworth and myself…he believes the soul is or may be immortal. I don’t know.

So before I can read on, I need to make my own translation because the word ‘soul’ has come back in such a grand light, and I want to make sure I am in tune with the flow of the poem. So I must think about  children and ask myself what I have seen in them that might correspond to what Wordsworth calls ‘soul’. Reading a poem in this way is like experiencing someone else’s mind. To do that well, I have to try to follow the  movements of Wordsworth’s thoughts, but also to match them against my own.  This is a little like my struggle with the language here in Sweden, where almost everyone speaks very good English. But someone tells me their name, or a placename, and when I need to use it, I cannot remember at all, because the sounds of Swedish are so different to the sounds of English. I have had to write a few such names down phonetically, to help me remember, and I have to think in my own language and try to connect looks of sound to the Swedish sound. Thus for Tyresö, this area of Sweden, I remembered by remembering the word ‘Tiramisu’. (If you leave the ‘m’ out they sound a bit similar.) I’m working with new stuff, but I have to understand it on the basis of what my mind already contains. (That’s meant as  minor analogy to the problem of trying to understand Wordsworth).

So for ‘soul’ here, I think to the time when each of my children were born. I remember looking in to their eyes and feeling contact. I do not know what modern psychology would make of that – in my youth the scientific belief seemed to be that sense of intelligence in the newborn child, ‘contact’, smiling etc, were all figments of the mother’s imagination. That  has changed, with the coming of women, and specifically mothers, into the discipline of Child Psychology. The advent of video cameras has allowed lab scientists to ‘prove’ what once only mothers saw.  (It’s worth reading Alison Gopnik, look her up here.)

The fact that babies are new here, come with a mind which must assemble a sense of reality, must create their understanding of the world (rather than like us adults, be pressed upon by the heavy and weary weight of custom) is partly what lies behind that word ‘immensity’. The child seems dominated by that immense soul, as if  that is mainly what it is – and  I think that is partly why we love children so much, they are not worn down as we are, by worldly realities, but carry their fresh questions, their solemn gazing with them in ways we long for but can no longer, or rarely, achieve. This child-thinking, if we can even call it thinking, this way of being, makes the child, for Wordsworth, un-wordly-wise.

Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—

The  child is the best philosopher because he is still connected to his ‘heritage’ – that state or place which, earlier in the poem, Wordsworth has called ‘the imperial palace whence we came’.  Heaven still lies about him. He is still trailing clouds of glory. The child is  able to see, among our adult blindness, and yet is both ‘deaf and silent’. Why? If I think back to my own babies, I remember them looking out of their eyes, large, alien, not-yet-worldly eyes but eyes none the less seeking to look out from inside. What was within? the child , Wordsworth says is ‘deaf and silent’ – and is neither, in common reality, but in terms of the human language we employ to try to make sense of our consciousness? Yes, in terms of our language, which the new born baby does not yet have, and even the six year old has in rudimentary form – both deaf and silent. Yet this child ‘read’st the eternal deep’ and is ‘haunted for ever by the eternal mind.’ ‘Read’st’ is a sight action performed by the eye, but it is also about processing information – reading isn’t just looking, gazing. It is a verb of comprehension, it is about understanding meaning. It is a connection between inside and out.

Now this morning’s time is nearly up – is up, I’m freezing – but I can’t stop until I’ve finished this part. Why is the child ‘haunted forever by the eternal mind’? Why ‘forever’?  Why ‘haunted’?

thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—

The line ends, we turn the corner of the line-ending and ‘haunted’ comes right after ‘read’st the eternal deep’. Is it time that is changing the situation? Is it that, as we get older – more worldly-experienced –  we get further and  further from that which Wordsworth has earlier called  ‘home’ – yet those ghostly memories, echoes, continue to reverberate? We are haunted by what is lost (but we don’t know what it was) and  by things which call to us from another state of being (of which we have only  the slightest of intimations). In ‘haunted’ there is something about not being able to make contact, not being able to cross over  from  one state to another. Yet the haunted being knows, senses, something. In this case, ‘the  eternal mind’.

Agh – what is that? ‘God, who is our home?’ But what is it?

My first response here is : Is there an eternal mind? But that is not a helpful question. Better to attempt translation! What might be meant by ‘the eternal mind’?

But that is a good place to stop for today.

The sun is rising but still this porch on the back of our little wooden house is very cold, despite my blankets. Time for breakfast.

Seeing the light in Sweden

uppsalaYesterday was Day One of the  ‘let’s start Shared Reading’ get-together in Uppsala. People have come from various parts of Sweden and from more than several disciplines; academics, students, mental health professionals and librarians, community, regional and hospital-based. Hospital library man says ‘Our work (in a big General Hospital) is trolley-based, we take books round the wards to people too ill to go to a library; when I’m recruiting I say I don’t care if you love books, do you care for people? Otherwise you can’t do this job…’

A woman working in dementia care tells me that lighting a candle in the middle of the table during a reading session helps people focus and concentrate, the candle ‘is like fire to humans, or from their childhood, and it says something special is about to happen here.’

In a Shared Reading session (Thomas Hardy’s poem,  I Look Into My Glass’ , professional  women talk about  the invisibility ( and thus freedom) of older women. ‘When I was young men saw me but not so much my mind. Now they see (sometimes) my mind but for this (indicating body) I am not there.’

I was struck, as I have been each time I’ve visited a Scandinavian country, by the level of education and commitment to citizenship and social values. At dinner a librarian tells me she has volunteered as a ‘language friend’ to an Afghani woman recently arrived in Sweden.  The woman attended the first session with husband, cousins  and both children. ‘She has more Swedish than I have Pashtun, so she’ll be able to help me: she is a knitter so we’ll be able to talk about that.’   How come you are doing this? ‘I read about it in the papers and thought I have to do something. So… I volunteer.’

Two women from a publishing house explain their business to me. It was set up forty-odd years ago to get great books to the workers. There is a strong workers’ education movement in Sweden. The books were paperbacks produced in huge numbers and distributed mainly through the union. ‘Each week you get your pay and you get a book.’ They still work closely with unions, but also do outreach into non-reading and non-working communities, particularly giving out children’s books and working with  ‘new Swedes’.  Could such a publishing house help with Shared Reading in Sweden. ‘That’s why we are here!’

I want to bring them to England to meet with The Reader’s friends in publishing in England.

But to my morning reading. Yesterday I’d got up to the word ‘home’ in the Wordsworth poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, which you can read in full here. I had been working on this section;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

There’s a great leap from ‘god who is our home’ marked by the colon (in some versions it is a semi colon.) Like a cliff edge to fly off from, the colon sits there, marking a spot and we know some other thought is coming, which, as we continue to glide off that cliff,  from ‘home’, it does:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I am trying to think of this line in relation to modern neuro-thinking and psychology: what is the translation? Babies arrive without lived experience, and the innocent clean-slated-ness of that is palpable to habituated and world-experienced adults. Could that be expressed as ‘heaven lies about us in our infancy!’

More simply, there’s also a lovely image of the infant lying in their cot, a mist of something clear and golden about them. But perhaps exhausted parents of new-borns think I am exuding a whiff of sentimentality? Quite possibly yes, if you are your thirty-fourth night of interrupted sleep as a new parent. But even so, I bet, you still feel something extraordinarily wonderful  and realms of gold-ish about your baby, sometimes. But Wordsworth can’t stop here long, in Heaven, he’s no sooner got that exclamation mark down on the page, before he must rush, like the fleeting years of youth, on to a very leaden reality;

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,

One minute heaven lies about you, next, shades of the prison-house begin to close, and only an exclamation mark and a line-ending between them! Now we are in a downhill-all-the-way-race towards the adult life:

Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

And there we are: our adult selves, stuck with everyday reality. What a  come-down. This section feels almost like one of those cartoon diagrams of evolution. You see a sun rise, cross the sky and  go down. The path of sun marks the journey from the radiance of heaven in infancy to boyhood – where the child none the less’ beholds the light and whence it flows’ – to youth where, though we have to move away, yet we are still aware of and able to see ‘ the vision splendid’ and it seems to be coming with us, almost in the place of a servant;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;

The ‘vision splendid’  attends on the youth, as if serving his light-filled purpose, which is to go on… until finally, the grown adult, the man, sees it fade ‘into the light of common day’ and we are rising and going to work, coming home tired, watching telly and eating our supper and going to bed and rising and going to work and ……everything has reverted to the norm, and where is the radiance of  infancy?

The most worrying thing to me is the verb ‘perceives’ – that adults are aware of their loss and feel it happening though it seems they are unable to do anything about it.

How, as a young reader, in my mid-twenties, did I know this was true? I’d  had that feeling,  of course. I’d felt ‘it’ fade away … but was ‘it’?

The poem calls it ‘heaven’ and later, ‘light’. I didn’t have a word for it, but I’d had the experience of it, so was glad to find Wordsworth putting it into words.

Adult life may be mainly  loss of whatever heaven that was that lay about us in our infancy,  but it also makes me grateful for what I see of the light whenever I do see it. Yesterday, learning about these people and their lives, about their  dedication to learning and reading and social care, about the hospital librarian recruiting people to spread the light via the book trolley, made me glad about and hopeful for my fellow humans.

Not in entire forgetfulness

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Apple blossom, Calderstones Park, 3 April 2017

24 hour grandparenting duties performed with no injuries and a jolly good time had by all… Yesterday I got two small children up and sort of washed and dressed (allow myself some leeway there, or as W.B.Yeats puts it ‘forgive myself the lot’) and breakfasted (delicious made-by-the-boy-himself smoothie with banana, milk, greek yoghurt blueberries and  …. chocolate cake) ready for school and childminder and got myself to work for ten to nine, triumphant but knackered. Bowled over with admiration for parents who do this every day – it is hard. Then you go to work! Well done!

Thinking about the little one year old and The Immortality Ode. She seemed so perplexed by our presence  when she woke up – as if really asking herself, what on earth’s going here? These people aren’t usually here. She looked from one to the other of us as if checking we were really ourselves and not her parents. She took it in her stride but you could see she was trying to work out, and with no background information e.g. weddings take place, your parents travel to Harrogate for a longed for bit if time alone together, what could be going on.

And so to the Immortality Ode, which I’ve been reading here in tiny chunks as my daily reading practice. I’m up to the fifth stanza.  When I first read this, as  a not-very-mature-student of twenty-four years old, the single mother of a five-year-old child, a person without religious belief and not  at all  into Wordsworth or  much poetry, I was profoundly moved by, excited by  this stanza. I suddenly felt I knew what he was talking about. I’ll put the whole stanza here, although will only think about the first few lines;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

I had read, perhaps a year before this, what for me became a life-changing, life-shaping book, Doris Lessing’s Sci Fi novel, Shikasta. The novel introduced me to some powerful new ideas – the key one being vocation: life has purpose though you may not know what it is, may simply suffer an uncomfortable sense of things not being right, may feel out-of-kilter. Shikasta  sets out a universe in which  more highly evolved beings, which the story calls Canopeans (we might call them ‘gods’) get involved in the development of less evolved  planets…such as ours, which we call Earth, but they call Shikasta, the broken one.

I’ve stopped recommending this book. Lots of people don’t like it. But for me, it came from a trusted source (I’d been reading Doris Lessing for years, as she was, in the seventies and up to the publication of this book, a great favourite of the  women’s movement, which had  been my source-of-meaning-home) and reconnected me to my early love of SF. It came to me when I was in a receptive state, and it came with a way of thinking that literally, overnight, changed my mind.  Like The Immortality Ode, it posits the idea that souls, that come from elsewhere,  are incarnated into bodies and must live on earth. I’d been obsessed with the novel  for a year when I read this poem.  My mind was set up to receive it. I read the lines and felt they were already in some way my own thoughts;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

It, we, I – my ‘soul’ – still struggle with that word, hate religious language, don’t like religions – but it is a word that stands for something and I don’t have a better word, so must use it, ‘cometh from afar’. True or false? It felt true to me. First Shikasta and now this poem were giving me a language for previous unknowable feelings. I had thoughts, as Bion says, in the quote I posted the other day, but I didn’t have the equipment for thinking them. I could not process my own emotional experience. The language of this poem gave me that. What did I recognise as true?

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I knew that when my daughter had been born I had felt I knew her. That she existed, fully, in her self, was something, someone already before any experience had affected her. She seemed to be here. It was one probably the most powerful emotional experience of my life (repeated when my son was born twelve years later). There were no words for what I felt I knew. She came partly knowing something – ‘not in entire forgetfulness’ and clothed in something – ‘not in utter nakedness’, and certainly she came ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

I did not like the word ‘God’ but I ignored that. These days I can use it, but then, it was too loaded with other people s meanings to be real to me. Yet the second part of that line, ‘who is our home.’ also seemed to strike a chord of truth. That I could believe. Something in us is connected to, comes from, is at home ‘elsewhere’ – that word is a lovely pointer to somewhere specific we don’t yet know, isn’t it?

Yikes, gone over time. Late for work!

Wordsworth a glorious brain scanner

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Tall Magnolia in huge blossom at Calderstones March 28 2017

Still reading Intimations of Immortality, and into the next section now. Read the whole poem here.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

The timing is interesting in this poem. We began in the present, looking back to a golden past (‘there was a time…it is not now as it hath been of yore’). It’s hard to know, now, as we begin this third stanza, where the opening word, ‘Now’ places us. Has any time passed between the opening of the poem and this moment? Or is Wordsworth grounding himself (and us) in one specific  – present – ‘now’ moment? He is  out-of-doors, in the fields, which may be where he was when he started…or that may have been  ages ago. Then I wonder – has all this (thought) happened in an instant, is there no time here? The poem seems to be mapping out, putting into slow words, a feeling that anyone might have, and which – if you are not a poet might well pass, nameless, unexpressed, hardly known. How do such feelings, thoughts, fit with time? They often seem instanteous.

But to go back to the poem…’Now’ puts us in a definite place in time, when something extraordinary has happened /is happening right now:

To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:

So: he had the feeling (though I’m wrong in calling it  that, because Wordsworth calls it ‘a thought’) then said something (‘a timely utterance’) then felt better (‘and I again am strong.’). This is a pattern many of us will recognise.

But what was it, ‘the ‘utterance’? Have we had it already in the poem? I don’t think so, but let’s go back and see;

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.
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.
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.

Perhaps the ‘utterance’ is simply that last line, ‘That there hath past away a glory from the earth’. I suddenly notice the structure Wordsworth is giving this  poem – this account of the working of his feelings, mind, thought, self;

Stanza One – sense of some glory lost
Stanza Two – remember certain other, more specific glories (moon, rose, heavens, sunshine) and calibrate one’s feelings – yes, they are good but still something lost.
Stanza Three – note how saying something, getting it into words, ‘an utterance’, has changed the way I feel.

Having found strength in saying something,  in getting his thought into words, Wordsworth is strong enough again to look up and  see that world, which suddenly feels ‘glorious’ again;

And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Something has shifted, those cataracts blowing their trumpets are quite glorious, annoucing something, and they are loud, they are ‘trumpets’! Wordsworth now seems in a different relation to his own feelings. Whatever the glory was at the beginning is still gone, but at least now he seems able to be glad of what he can see and hear and feel. The shouts of  the Shepherd boy bring ‘joy’, not the opening sense of dislocation.

For me this is about a  kind of readjustment  you have to make – repeatedly – in life. Something is lost, you feel the loss, and the pain of loss is sometimes overwhelming. You lose more than the original loss with the loss of your capacity to feel joy. Over time the loss doesn’t go away, but you recalibrate and somehow that allows ‘joy’ to re-enter  your universe.

What I love about Wordsworth is that he is like a brain scanner, tracking feeling, thought and language, showing how it moves and changes in us. You have to read him very slowly for this to happen. Most of us are not neuroscientists and don’t have access to that big tech. This is the next best thing.

What to read in a Shared Reading group

The Return Home and Rosa's Blanket
Cherry blossom, West Kirby 31 March 2012

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

Blossoming! I saw this same tree yesterday but didn’t have my camera, so it was good to find it in my back collection, and realise I’ve loved it before. The picture does not  do the reality justice – the centres of the white  blossoms are dark pink.

Thinking of the surprise of finding lovely stuff growing – last night I was looking at  The Reader’s videos on You Tube, trying to decide what I should show when I go to Uppsala  next week, and  I was surprised and delighted when I stumbled across a film from Shared Reading New South Wales. I didn’t know there was Shared Reading in NSW!  My colleague Megg tells me that Christopher started out in  one of her groups in Kensington and Chelsea and then  did Read to Lead…great to see Shared Reading seeds settling around the world.

This morning I continued reading All The Days of My Life and found there are many poems I’d like to read  – I’d forgotten that I used to really love Dennis Haskell’s ‘One Clear Call’, a moving poem about Tennyson’s ‘Crossing The Bar’ and the reality of poetry. I used often to read the two poems together.

But I came to ‘Intimations of Immortality’ and thought, it is always worth rereading and I wondered if many people running Shared Reading groups ever  simply do a whole long poem like this?  This is perfect for an hour and a half, maybe two hours reading, though you have to watch the time – because really it’s a four-hour poem. Sometimes I meet people  who tell me that Shared Reading means reading a short story and poem. And I say, no, Shared Reading is about sharing the reading, not the format of the reading matter. You  might read a scene from Hamlet and no poem. Or you might be a starting out on a novel and want only the novel because you’ve got to concentrate and it is hard to find the time. Or you might decide to read a longish poem.

If you were reading this poem, you’d start by knowing that some people in your group would find the length and the language off-putting, so the first job is to make sure you really love it before you take it along, or if love is not yet possible, at least you need to think you might really love it if you got into it. You’ve got to trust it to work out.

Thought I might read a little each day this week. There’s a link to the whole poem here.

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.
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.
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.
Now, I’ve pasted all those lines in, but I might spend a long time at the beginning of a group thinking about the title of this poem, otherwise it might seem like a meaningless collection of long words.
‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of  Early Childhood.’
Does anyone remember the feelings of early childhood?  Some people say they can remember being in their pram, looking up into the trees, seeing the blossoms, as in the picture above.
I remember my sister being born, I was five. I remember being picked up to see her through  a ground floor hospital window. It would have been March and I remember it as sunny. There  were wallflowers and I could smell their scent, powerful, peppery, sweet. Only when I get to the scent do I feel I am getting into ‘immortality’. The scent moves me, almost literally transports me. Is this the kind of early childhood memory Wordsworth is talking about?
What is an ‘intimation’  – have you ever experienced one?  The Online Etymological Dictionary tells me it means “action of expressing by suggestion or hint, indirect imparting of information” .
And what would an ‘intimation of  immortality’ feel like ? Perhaps none of us in the group can imagine that. Perhaps someone will surprise us with a profoundly poetic explanation of their take on it.
I’m already thinking I’ve made a mistake in imagining I can read this poem in a session, even a two-hour one!
Time’s up!  Why does writing take so long? More tomorrow.

A Poem to Hold You Up

alder may 2016
A fine structure for life

Herman Hesse writes of solitary trees:

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

How hard it is, sometimes, to have the gift of life. Most of the Universe,  astronomers tell us is nothing. Nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum, it mostly is one. Only  in the rarest  flecks of the universe  is something, is matter. We are tiny bits of that matter and we have what seems even rarer, consciousness and self-awareness. It is the greatest, shortest, most spectacular and powerful, rare thing:  the chance to be alive and become yourself, your life. And yet how hard it is to endure the struggle that  Herman Hesse describes here, in the struggle of  solitary, individual trees to be themselves;

they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

This is a task all humans take on, more or less consciously. Unlike trees (I speak in  trepidation, not certain of my ground here,  for who knows what mystery there is in trees…)  we have conscious minds and that brings us a mighty  burden as well as  great power. Sometimes it feels as if having a  mind, by which I mean a self-conscious centre of consciousness, is like have a  super-powered roaring engine strapped onto our body, an engine that makes us buzz around like a balloon flying round with air coming out of it at speed,  high-powered, but with no controller, no purpose.

Trees, I am sure, do not ever feel like that.

I myself hardly ever feel like that these days, but when I think back to the hard years of my teens, my twenties, my thirties and, sorry to say, my forties, my blurry memories of that long period of becoming my self (no, not finished yet but going now at a different pace, and going in a particular way, which wasn’t the case then) I cannot imagine weathering some of those  storms, winters which went on for what seemed a decade, without George Herbert. For some of us becoming what we are often feels impossibly difficult. George Herbert seemed to stand beside me offering an arm while I tried to stand upright.

During a period of years when I had no idea how to  make anything of my life –  that possibility wasn’t even on the map, so  I didn’t  think about it –  I walked the dog every morning,  wrote poems, and read poems. The poems I read in the hardest of those winters were religious because they opened a space in which it was possible to recognise my shape, and they offered a structured language for the experience I was living through. All the ‘Affliction’ poems were leaning posts for me. They helped shape me for the future, they held me up. Now they are part of me, in my bones.

Affliction 1

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave;
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me;
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth;

Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I serv’d,
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserv’d
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way;
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,

Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believ’d,

Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv’d.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more, for my friends die;
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threaten’d oft the siege to raise,
Not simp’ring all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweet’ned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making

Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

No time, this morning to read through the whole poem, but only to point to a few lines that still touch my with their truth:

…a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Why did it help me to read these lines?  When you are  not in good shape (see good shape in picture above and compare to  when your life is out of joint) not being ‘of use’ is one of the burdens. And a knife is dangerous – sometimes a blunt knife more dangerous than a sharp one. Then he turns sideways and you see – oddly, brilliantly – ‘without a fence’  is he cast out? Yes. Is he unprotected? Yes. Is he stick thin? Yes. Does the slightest thing set him off? Yes. Is he easily blown about  by  any wind? Yes.

Recognise it all ? Yes.  I love the  time  he arrives at the tree-thought, right now, as if the poem is living through terrible real-time:

None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Now. Now Now. Can’t get out of it. He treads water. ‘I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree.’ But the imagination of being a tree  is a tiny, tiny moment of change. A tree is not a bit of thin lath in a fence. A tree is not a blunted knife. The lovely hope that a bird might  nest in him, some living creature might ‘trust’ him, is a possible future.  But George Herbert doesn’t get there in this poem, which is written  in medias res, in the absolute thick of it. The last stanza is frustrated, stuck, going round in circles;

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weakness must be stout;

He knows intellectually what he is supposed to do – be stout – but, angrily, childishly, frustratedly, can’t do that;

Well, I will change the service, and go seek

Some other master out.

Bah! Give up!And then, a bigger, more difficult problem and a restating of it as GH’s own responsibility:

Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Does it matter what God (read ‘life’) is doing to him? No. The responsibility rests with he who is living that life. Got to go with the flow, got to act with it.

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

How do I love thee? Ah life, let me count the ways. Wake up, count blessings, look at a tree, a bird, a baby. There is an infinite universe of nothing. Then there is this, this spark of life, this us. Painful, worth having.  Keep going.