Taking comfort from the experience of the Victorian Patriarch

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Front garden and a hard rain, 3 August

Yesterday I’d started reading ‘The Toys’, which I’ll reread here, now:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

I’d read to the end of the first sentence yesterday  so I am going to pick up here:

Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

It’s interesting that the word ‘grief’ comes in straight after the line about the mother being dead. I’d had the feeling that the father was feeling grief too, grief at hitting the child, at being unkind, harsh, not kissing him goodnight. So this line ‘Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep’ feels to me  as much about the father as the child. The father is feeling remorse and wants now to comfort the child.  How closely he looks at the child, seeing his eye lashes are wet. This isn’t just putting your head round the door and thinking , oh, he’s gone off!  The distressed father, crying himself now, kisses the child. He was moved before he entered the room  but he is moved even more now. The wet eyelashes, the bruised looking lids, play a big part in agitating the father’s feelings, but it is the comforts to which the child has turned which really get him:

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

Lovely things, loved by the child and all of them standing in for his father’s kiss. You love these things, the father is thinking, you havedrawn them close when I should have been close.

As someone who has sometimes  lost her tempter with children, and others,  and as someone who was once a child sometimes sent angrily to bed, crying myself to sleep, who has felt these feelings of sadness and remorse, I find this poem very moving, very real. but now we reach ‘God’ and I have to do my usual exercise of reading what Coventry Patmore has written and trying to understand, get inside it. and at the same time doing some sort of  spiritual translation for myself so that  ‘God’ can  mean something to me.

So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Coventry Patmore prays to God ‘that night’ as, I imagine he does every night.  for non-God readers, what might this translate into? A period of meditative reflection?  You are thinking over  the events of the day and evaluating how you did ?  Patmore’s God is God The Father, and I suddenly feel, as if for the first time, what a burden that might have been for Victorian patriarchs – not just backup and authority but an impossible role model.

If the child broke the father’s law seven times and got a whack for doing so, how many times has the father broken God’s law? Which includes forgive people not seven times but seventy times seven. Patmore the father will be  thinking of his own failure – ‘how weakly understood/Thy great commanded good’ just as his little son did not understand the meaning or reality of Patmore’s law. and what comforts does Patmore the child of God the father seek – things like  ‘a box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,/A piece of glass abraded by the beach/And six or seven shells,’…. stuff, things, worldly comforts? when all the time there is a possible comfort in god – not always a wrathful Old Testament patriarch, but one who can kiss your head and say  “I will be sorry for their childishness.” This isn’t a biblical quotation so far as I can see, though I do wonder if it is an echo  or memory of Psalm 38.

When you don’t have God, you are left with your own feelings and what’s happened. That can be extremely lonely, and it is hard to control the remorse, you are (I am) left to suffer guilt.  Believing in God who would forgive and understand your weakness, failures, would be a great comfort.  This poem contains that comfort, and offers, as it were through the story of the poem, indirectly, a model of such a feeling, which, reading, I too can feel. I can feelingly imagine a comforter, even as I am feeling with Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Oh Comforter, where is thy comforting?’

Imaging that possibility – for Patmore, if not for myself –  introduces that possibility into my range of thought. Putting the shape – even through a fiction –  into my mind helps create it. So it is the poem helps me feel better.

 

 

Not a Victorian Dad Thing: ‘The Toys’ by Coventry Patmore

greengage
Greengage (and fairy lights) enjoying a stiff August breeze, August 2 

Yesterday I finished reading Coventry Patmore’s ‘Magna est Veritas’, and realised that I’d been unconsciously thinking of ‘The Toys’ while reading. So here is that poem:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Here’s a poem that confounds conventional stereotypes about Victorian fathers.

The first sentence  tells us what’s happened:

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

I’d want to go  very slowly through these opening lines  and get my group to think about the order of  the various bits of information here. First, we are set down right in front of the child, ‘my little Son’, where the adjective ‘little’ seems almost an endearment as well as a descriptor.

Then we see him in a wider, more extended context:

…who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

This child, is normally well-behaved, ‘thoughtful’ and easy to parent,  he ‘moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise.’ Does the father treat him as an adult? and could that be part of the problem – was he expecting too much? No childishness?

I realise as I am reading that this feels like overhearing a confession or a counselling session. The father is remembering and thinking about this painful incident, but he’s not just telling the story of the incident. He is telling us his feelings about what happened. There’s much love, tenderness, in the first two lines as he  recounts how much he loves the child and how good the child is normally. Which makes the next part so much the more painful:

Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

The father has a law – rules, we might call them, or, these days,  boundaries. But there is huge authority in that word law, and it does make me think (I know we are not there yet but I know it is coming, having read the poem through a couple of times) God The Father.

The child has tried his father’s patience and seven times. That’s quite a lot of times that your child has stepped over the boundary.  I imagine some small child-crime – pushing the sibling off the slide – once, three times – I’m getting pretty angry. Seven times?  Getting very cross indeed…But  is that ‘seven’ an echo of something? It must be a reference to the Bible:

(Romans 12:14-21)

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

We no longer think it right to strike children, but in Patmore’s day that would have been not simply socially acceptable  but considered the right way to enforce disciple – it was in my childhood and  in my own children’s childhoods. But as bad as the  blow, possibly worse, is the emotional pain of rejection –  it’s the father who did the rejecting –  in the name of parental authority – but he suffers it now :

I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

We get to a key pain here for the father – the word ‘unkiss’d ‘ seems to raise the memory, ghostly presence, of the mother. That mother, ‘who was patient’, would  not have done this or let it happen, and is dead. ‘Being dead’  – that’s an odd way to put it. It feels raw.

Thre’s a kind of paraphrase I want to make:  ‘his motherbeing dead, I  hit the child and sent him away unkindly, unkissed. She’d never have let that happen.’

We are likely  to think of the poem at first as showing us a classic stern Victorian father stereotype but what we’re getting here is actually a different kind of classic: difficulty of the single parent, having to be both father and mother, having to set a boundary, stick to it and pull back when a line is crossed.  It’s hard that the little clause, ‘who was patient’, is  set in  the middle of that line about death, that patience is unavailable. The father has not been patient; certainly not to seventy times seven.

It’s so recognisable – every parent must have had this experience or something like it at some point.

But I want to think for a moment about that ‘recognisable’. ‘Relevance’ is another of those troubling matters which are not easy to resolve with a rule of thumb or principle. Does what you take to a  group of people who are  – or are about to become – a Shared Reading group have to be ‘relevant’ ?  Do you only take ‘The Toys’ to a group of parents?  For a group of men who like fishing, do you only take a fishing magazine? And for those who follow the Kardashians or Love Island what should you be taking?

But most groups aren’t made up of  single issue members: fathers or fishing fans or Kardashian followers, people with a fear of horses, single parents or  those who only live in odd-numbered houses. All those people might well attend the same group. So catering for a specific interest group, or what one assumes is a specific interest  or single issue group (people who live round here, people with no qualifications, people engaged with mental health services)  is rarely the best way to go.  ‘People who live round here’ are all different individuals  and  yet also share some underlying human experience which is not necessarily ‘living round here’. The ‘underlying human’ is more powerful, in my experience, than the ‘connected by our living round here’. Good poems will work well with most people.

There are exceptions. I wouldn’t in the first instance think of reading ‘The Toys’ with a parent in prison for  abusing a child. As a man at Reader event once said to me, poems are like poems, they can go off, they can  hurt people. But that is not to say that I wouldn’t think of reading the poem later, when we had been reading together long enough, when we trusted one another, if it seemed as if it might help. Read in The Reader magazine about my colleague Megg, reading Charles Bukowski’s poem, ‘Bluebird’ in Send prison -sorry can’t remember which issue.

And of course, you do not know, you never know, the individual private experience of members of your group, who might have been abused by parents  or others, or have been perpetrators or sufferers of domestic violence.

Most people know quite a lot about most human experiences, wherever they live, whatever their educational experience, whether or not they work, live with a chronic illness or are in recovery from addiction. Poems will touch a spot in someone in your group. That  isn’t a  thing to be too afraid of –  though be a bit afraid, because it helps keep your mind on the likely responses – that is what poems do. That is what they are for, to find, activate  and connect the underlying human experience.

Almost everyone can relate to ‘The Toys’ because it is about feeling guilty after a bad mistake. That’s a human thing, not just  a Victorian dad thing.

Finish reading ‘The Toys’ tomorrow

 

 

 

Truth is great and what else matters? What to read in a Shared Reading group

oleander.JPG
Oleander shivering on the back step, 1 August

Yesterday I was reading this poem from Coventry Patmore’s :

Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

And had  got as far as the last four lines. Yesterday I’d finished:

Now I reach the line that troubled me at the beginning: ‘when all its work is done, the lie shall rot’.  the pronoun, ‘its’, refers to  the world, or the world’s course,  to the great unfolding of time and history and the planet. Then, when that work is done, ‘the lie shall rot’. Seems like one bog, obvious lie. Just one of it  – ‘the lie’.

Could it be the lie about human value –  every life matters?  Could it be the lie about  the material work of humanity in the world – we’re doing all this, getting money, bringing our children up,  working – but  that’s not what it’s all about? I don’t know why I say ‘children’, because the word Coventry Patmore uses is ‘work’.

Starting again here, now, today I go back to that thought about children/work.

I realised overnight that I was thinking about children here because the only other poem of Coventry Patmore I’ve read is The Toys  – a poem about making a mistake as a parent and suffering for your temper after the child has gone to sleep. Perhaps that sense of his fatherhood was unconsciously in my mind when I was  wondering about what kind of thing he had walked away from.

It’s a strange feeling isn’t it, contemplating the world without ‘me’ in it? Which is, I think, what he has been doing and partly where the poem comes from. Patmore goes on to imagine the world’s ‘work’ – I ask myself as I read, what is that?  The course of human business? Mammon? If so, that leads me back to ‘the lie shall rot.’ Is that the one big lie we’re all involved in:  that what we  do matters? I don’t think that is quite right, but not sure it is completely wrong, either. I’m leaving it there while I go on to the next two lines:

The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

There’s a division between  human concerns and  bigger-than-human truth.  The truth (like the lie, a single, particular thing) ‘shall prevail’.  My understanding of grammar is poor, so I looked ‘shall’ up, not so much for its definition  – I think  it is a future form of the verb ‘be’  – as to understand  what it does as a part of speech.

‘Shall’ is a way of creating the future tense and is distinguished from  – the more commonly used – ‘will’. The key differentiator is that ‘shall’ does not indicate and desire or command, whereas  ‘will’ does. ‘Shall’ is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Which well  fits with the overall meaning here.

I’m now noticing, for the first time, the word ‘rot’ here.

It’s an organic, matter-based word.  It’s what happens to bodies after death. ‘The lie’, then, may be to do with the human world, partly geophysical – it will all go, in the end , won’t it? – but also partly everything we have created or invented or made – the world of philosophy,  the world of banking, the world of  public reputation. It will all rot…so our busy commitment to it, is that the lie?

I’m wondering now if  this poem about two kinds of belief about what the world is? They have clashed together somehow in the poet and forced this –  angry, disappointed, resolved ? – poem out. One is a materialist and human-centred view, apparently, but not actually,  purposeful(the huge town set in opposition to the natural movement of the tide, ‘purposeful, glad’). The other is something else.  It is not defined. It doesn’t get a mention, other than as ‘The truth is great’.

I wonder, on rereading the last line, ‘when none cares whether it prevail or not’, whether this was in fact the origin impulse for the poem’s creation. Did someone, did Patmore, care about whether truth prevailed in a specific instance?  Did he suffer  the fact that someone else did not care?

I imagine a story behind the poem… this is a way in which  I would  extend discussion in a Shared Reading group, to help  get the group more deeply into the  poem rather than rest on the surface.

What’s the story?  Someone did not care about the truth. Someone’s not caring about the truth affected Coventry Patmore’s ability to do his job – could have been him, himself, cold have been someone else. He walks out to get away from it.  Up the cliffs, perspective, smallness of human. Well, truth exists aside from everything human, he feels, as he looks at the  landscape, the ocean, the aeons.  Our pettiness won’t, matter, doesn’t matter now.

I’d read this poem again now, in my group, to give us all a chance to  listen to it and read it, with whatever thoughts we’ve assembled amongst us, in our heads.

I don’t end up feeling it is an abnegating poem. It feels more like a rest and a breath – and a re-assertion: truth is great.  I’ve just noticed, as I run out of time, that the word great appears twice – first at line 2, ‘great repose’. But time’s up.

Maybe tomorrow,  reread The Toys.

 

 

 

 

Walk away and look back: some perspective from Coventry Patmore

Huge Cliffs overlooking

Perast.JPG
Perspective in Kotor Bay, July 2017

This morning marks my return to work after a three-week break.  Odd to have the back-to-school feeling at the end of July instead of the beginning of September!

I loved those September mornings during my  unhappy and unsatisfactory years at secondary school: sunny mornings with the  scents of  early autumn and the possibility of  starting again. And even now, in January and after a break like this, I love the feeling of a new start.

I woke before my alarm and came to my desk to read, wondering if I should set myself some reading task this year, rather than wandering all over the place as usual. So, a brief stock-take:

I’m reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog, usually at least once a week. Will continue – know it well, love rereading.

I’m reading some Denise Levertov, maybe a poem or so each month. Great to be meeting an author  whose work is relatively unknown to me. Will continue.

Have been reading in a dip in and out way in the Oxford Book of English Verse and will continue to do that.

Am recording everything I start reading (‘Just Started’) and writing ‘Just Finished’ about things I want to recommend.

But I want something else?

I’m aware of the need for more contemporary poetry here but  the need to clear copyright means I need to be organised in advance. Not sure I can manage that.

I wonder about the possibility of starting a long poem – The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Prelude. That would be good  for me as  a regular effort and  I miss those  works when not teaching them on the Reading in Practice MA

Also wondering about my own Anthology of things I love or poems that have built me… that could be a tag.

This morning I wanted to read an old poem I had not read before and leafed through some Emily Bronte, Tennyson and Browning and Clough mainly noting old  friends before coming to this poem by Coventry Patmore which I’m sure lots of people know, but which I think is new to me. It struck a note lingering since my time away and some of the feelings and thoughts arising out of reading Emerson’s Essays. The Latin title (truth is great) is a  glance at a quotation from the Apocrypha – the uncanonised books of the Bible – the truth is great and shall prevail.

I was thinking of Emerson writing about what a fisherman learns from the action of the sea. that seems the same kind of action that is taking place in Coventry Patmore as he writes.

 

Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I’m immediately bothered on my first reading by ‘the lie shall rot’. I don’t know which lie Patmore is talking about. But that’s not a good place to get into the poem! I tell myself to read it again. I read it again.

A second slow reading brings home to me the  clear sense of two halves of the poem –  the before ‘I sit me down’ and the after.  It’s as if the poem takes place at a point of balance, a fulcrum. At this point, ‘I sit me down’ , Coventry Patmore can see both before and after.

There seems to be a lot about perspective, relative size, point of view. First, the Latin title makes me  think – Latin, the classics, ancient thinking, old-time. Then  when I found it was a biblical or apocryphal quotation that time span seemed to open up even more. So, literally, big is truth, sets the scale of this very small poem. It’s like some kind of telescopic viewer! We  start big and shrink down:

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

On this spot, ‘here’,  we experience or  remember, or watch from a great  distance a huge scene, which seems to be set in a massive geographical perspective.  The bay looks little, is little. I imagine Scarborough, walking up out-of-town on the cliff paths to a point where you can look back and see the shape of the bay as part of the coast’s huger geography. Yes, it is ‘little’. but as someone who has just walked from the  huge town and in view of the ocean, I see ‘tumultuous life and great repose’, all at once, both of those apparently opposed  things. The view from here, of the  little bay offers me a chance to see it all at once.

I thought at first that the ‘tumultuous life and great repose’ was about the town, but realise now on a fourth reading that it is  the entire bay and everything in it, the town yes, but also the landscape and the seascape. it is everything we are going to see in the next few lines:

Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town

The ocean and the movement of the ocean, the height of the cliffs, the distance from/to the town and the hugeness of the town itself are all visible at once, from ‘here’.

I note the ocean is ‘ purposeless, glad ‘ – that these two words are jammed together inside the line.

I note there’s a sudden rhythmic relief in the next line ‘I sit me down.’I read it all again. I wonder if there’s a separate Biblical echo in ‘I sit me down’? (By the rivers of Babylon).

Feels like a long look round, a long gaze takes place – and if we were Emerson, we’d be thinking, yes, this is how nature teaches. And then we come to the thought:

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

I wonder about the  piece of life that has been happening before the poem emerged, and which in some sense caused the poem to be born. Why is he out gazing at this huge view? what has he walked away from? What’s the mood?

In the line ‘for want of me the world’s course will not fail’ I might feel a straight forward estimation of reality: it’s just true, each of us is very small and hardly matter in the least to the big sweep.

But I am also thinking, is this an abnegation of responsibility? Could he be imagining a world without him in it, is he suicidal? is he merely frustrated? Has his work gone badly?

When I reread the lines, the ‘;me’ seems very small, very intimate. It’s a very private inner feeling. Is it like thinking  ‘I can’t fix all this?’ But the ‘want of me’  – he’s thinking of not being there. Will it make any difference if he is dead? No, he thinks, it won’t.

Funny thing to balance here between sanity and reality –  you can’t save the world! and abnegation of responsibility – if I go it won’t matter.

Now I reach the line that troubled me at the beginning: ‘when all its work is done, the lie shall rot’.  the pronoun, ‘its’, refers to  the world, or the world’s course,  to the great unfolding of time and history and the planet. Then, when that work is done, ‘the lie shall rot’. Seems like one bog, obvious lie. Just one of it  – ‘the lie’.

Could it be the lie about human value –  every life matters?  Could it be the lie about  the material work of humanity in the world – we’re doing all this, getting money, bringing our children up,  working – but  that’s not what it’s all about? I don’t know why I say ‘children’, because the word Coventry Patmore uses is ‘work’.

Yikes time is way up – I’m late! Will finish tomorrow.

 

 

More Golden Numbers

palms
Palm Trees outside the Camellia Shopping Centre in Kotor, Montenegro

Yesterday I started reading ‘Sweet Content’ by Thomas Dekker.

Sweet Content

ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crispèd spring?
O sweet content!
Swim’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

I was beginning to think that the poem offered a flexible series of  possible thoughts  – are you poor yet content, are you rich yet punished … thirdly,  whether you are rich or poor;

Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!

Are you free of vexatious concerns about money?  ‘Golden’ here seems a false word, as if  ‘golden numbers’ are anything but – they seem meaningless partly through repetition, but there’s also that obsessive feeling of worry, ‘golden numbers golden numbers’, the same old thought going round and round. Free of that? Oh sweet content!

Then we come to a bit which seems at odds with what has come before:

Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Like the mention of ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ at the opening, the word ‘work’ seems to set off chain reactions of opinions in readers.  This poet, someone will say is telling poor people they should work hard to be happy. Yes, another will agree, it is the protestant work ethic enforced by the elite.

Oh dear oh dear my friends,  I  think it is much odder than that. But please – let’s read what is there rather than knee jerk our own pre-judgement. The three lines seem to me all different.

First – ‘work apace, apace, apace, apace;’ feels frenetic – four repetitions? –  and I’m not sure  it is offered as a command. Perhaps  a feeling of what it is like to be working ‘apace’. I looked up apace- thinking it meant ‘fast’ but actually the dictionary offers  at a steady e.g walking, pace. Perhaps it means ‘be steady’.

Honest labour bears a lovely face;

This is the line that always gets someone’s back up. Perhaps it is that old class warfare scars run deep. Perhaps readers are scared of being judged as ‘masters’ who would enforce’ labour’ from workers. Whatever the underlying trauma, it is the wrong reaction because there’s no evidence here that  the poet is trying to inflict this – with or without irony – on anyone.  It is a statement. You might agree or disagree with  it.

Does honest labour bear a lovely face? I’d say it is does. Why honest? and I wonder now if there is a connection with the line that came before? If ‘work apace’  is about steadiness rather than a more modern frenetic activity…might ‘honest labour’ be the same as ‘work apace’ – work steadily.

A new thought now occurs to me: could this be a poem against gambling? or something like gambling – the creation of money out of money?

And ‘hey nonny nonny’?  It’s nonsense – like tra-la-la or oooh ah  in a modern lyric.

The second verse follows the same pattern, and the point at which I’d want to concentrate reading energy is the central line which seems to offer a balance point, where calm becomes gold, and gold ceases to be about money:

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

There’s a difference between being told to bear your burden patiently by someone who has power over you (and is suffering no burden) and learning to bear your burden patiently yourself.

What would you do, I ask myself, if you were reading in a group and someone  continued to keep reading as if this poem were a piece of class warfare?

I’d  let them  have their say, but at the same  I’d be looking for other people in the group who  wanted to read differently, closer to the actual text, from a less pre-set place. I’d be asking people to test certain of the poems  lines against their own experience, lines where those pre-formed notions will break down a bit. honest labour bears a lovely face is one of those.

At the conference in Newcastle, one of our readers described the difference in trying to sleep when you’ve done nothing all day and  then how you feel when you’ve walked the dog, been to the gym, done things.  That may not be paid labour but it is  labour and perhaps bears a lovely face. Doing things feels good.  Why is it ‘honest’?   You put the work in… dishonest labour? You get the reward – free money!! – without the effort.

is there an underlying principle about honesty and  the lovely nature of  labour? I think  there is – that is a truth almost like the truth of physics – if you   put the effort in here, then this follows….

So can you patiently bears want’s burden? and if so, does the burden disappear?

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

This poem is about mind-control, how we think about what we (must) do.  If you can control your own mind, or rather your mind’s response to external reality, then you do have absolute power: you are a king. You can’t change ‘want’, you may not be able to change how rich or poor you are, but you can change the way you feel and mentally respond to your situation.

Can only a rich, powerful person think this? I would be asking this to get my group thinking beyond the bounds of rich and poor. Part of the poem’s purpose is to ask us to ditch those easy distinctions.

The poem seems to argue  that the rich powerful person can’t do this – this person is a fool, vex’d by ‘golden numbers’.

If we move the conversation from the arena of rich and poor and into a more personally worked example  – what do you do with a thing you can’t change, an illness for example, a chronic condition… I know in most Shared Reading groups there will be at least one person living with such a condition, and learning to become the person who ‘patiently want’s burden bears’.

 

‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know…’

clematis rouge
Albertine going over, Clematis coming out, 20 June
England, in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

After writing here only  a couple of weeks ago that I  never want to read Shelley, I found myself stopping at this poem this morning.  I don’t think I’ve read it since I was an undergraduate and can’t remember reading it at all, yet it is one of those poems that has passed into my consciousness – I seem to know it. Yet the anger arrested me, perhaps because I already have it in me. Not many poems are angry. Or rather, I do not read many angry poems. Yesterday I read a lot of poems by Denise Levertov that were angry about the Vietnam war. Most war poems are angry. For me, poems about social injustice do not seem to work, they become trite, you get propaganda or party lines.  But today Shelley’s spitting anger seems  the right feeling.

Like many people I cannot get the Grenfell Tower tragedy out of my head.  I recommend listening  to Sir Michael Marmot on  yesterday’s Radio 4 Start The Week. Marmot talks about  life expectancy in Kensington: the difference between the wealthy south of  the borough and the impoverished north is 14 years for men. The average income for the borough is  £125,000 but for  half of the  population it is below £35,000. All kinds of problems, social, physical, and mental follow these stats. Marmot says, just because we have the NHS offering treatment doesn’t mean that is the right way to go about things. In the case of a fire, we’d say, not we have to treat the results of fire, but we have to prevent fires. The same is true for heart attacks and mental illness.

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tvj71#play    (from about 12 minutes in)

Yes, I want a new world. I believe that new world starts with education, not simply for the poor children of Kensington, but also for the apparently well-educated people who make the decisions about the £5000 saving on the flammable tower coverings. The Marmot Review  (2010) called for us to act in 6 domains simultaneously in order to  help close the inequalities gap. Those domains are

1. giving every child the best start in life

2. enabling all children, young people and adults to maximize their capabilities through education and lifelong learning and have control over their lives

3. creating fair employment and good work for all

4. ensuring a healthy standard of living for all

5. creating and developing sustainable places and communities

6. strengthening the role and impact of ill-health prevention.

What does the poem say? It says everything’s broken, the instituitions (state, people, army , church,  parliament)  it’s all disgusting, corrupt, dead. It says I’m sick of it all.  It says, something may happen to change that, some glorious phantom may burst forth… but, at this point I stop reading.  I don’t believe in that phantom. (And perhaps neither does Shelley, otherwise, why call it a phantom?)

So, back to work. I’m working on the second  (and the fifth, and the sixth) of Marmot’s recommendations and must get back to it.

 

 

 

Concentrated Wordsworth – Do Not Dilute

 

caldyhill.jpg
View from Caldy Hill

On my commute I’ve been listening to Cal Newport’s  Deep Work, a book which offers insight into why it’s hard to concentrate in a distracted world, and what you can do about it. There are interesting thoughts here, and I’ve been trying to test some of them out. I’d already decided to  limit my email time – which I’ve done by putting up a weekly out-of-office message explaining I’ll only answer at set times. If people need a quick answer they have to ring me up or text me. That seems to work, and has convinced me that most email messages are not urgent, and I don’t need to check them 10, 15, 20 times a day. The time saved not checking is worth having. But Cal’s book goes further, and suggests we should practice deep concentration, with our network connection off… because we can’t multi-task, and every time we interrupt ourselves we lose energy and interrupt our own mental processes. As I’m reading on an audio book, I can’t flip through to find a good quote for you but I will be buying a paper copy, and I’m recommending it.

A little while ago I wrote about Denise Levertov’s poem ‘O Taste and See’ which begins by quoting this poem by Wordsworth. Deep Work made me think of the Wordsworth poem:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Wordsworth contrasts ‘the world’ – the human world we create, world of time and stuff, with the other world, the planet perhaps, world of Nature, and he finds us (or maybe himself) out of kilter. Haven’t you had that feeling?
When I have it, it is likely that I don’t notice the qualifier, ‘too much’ with its hidden implication of a possible balance. There is a place on a scale where the world might be with us the right amount, then?
‘Late and soon’ he writes, bringing time into it in a peculiarly ‘busy human’ way: as if Time were cut down into the little pieces on wither side of us, just before or just after this moment.
I’ve always read ‘getting and spending’ as about money and material objects but just now as I read I thought of them differently, as being perhaps to do with the deployment of energy,  of the powers we lay waste to in the  other half of the line.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
I’m thinking of busyness, of rushing about, of using up your power, doing things. What if we just stopped, and conserved some of that energy? Wordsworth seem to achieve a moment’s mastery at this point and looks up, wonderingly:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It’s like looking out onto a strange landscape, an unfamiliar world – this world of Nature looks unconnected to whatever feels like ‘ours’ – and what would that be? The next line seems to indicate we’ve changed, we are no longer natural. ‘We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!’
I walk up Caldy Hill and sit on the bench overlooking the lie of the land and sea; I see a kind of timelessness. I work in my garden and feel the inch of the seasons, fleeting beauty, change. These moments I seem to get my heart back. But in the rush of ‘getting and spending’ my power, my energy, even my money and my stuff – where am I? It might feel good, says Wordsworth, but it is not. Its a boon , a good, but a ‘sordid’ one. And we gave them away! We chose to do it! And now it seems, having given our hearts away, we can’t feel things we might have felt :
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
There is storm in Wordsworth’s mind, the sea, the wind, though the weather seems calm now – the sea and wind are upgathered ‘like sleeping flowers’. We don’t hear the music of storm or peace, ‘we are out of tune;/ It moved us not.’
There’s a grim reality to this recognition: I don’t feel anything.  this is a possible turning point.
Wordsworth turns his mind to times when humans might have believed in different gods, when he might have been felt different – ancient Greece, ancient Greek gods – was it different then? But ‘might’ is a key word.
I ask myself  if our world is any different to Wordsworth’s world,  to Homer’s world. In all worlds, humans may need time to let nothing happen, to hear the sea, to watch the wind.
Cal Newport argues it is important not to check your phone when standing in a queue. Just be bored, do nothing, allow your mind to be unstimulated. Give up the constant getting and spending of energy. Get your heart back.
I’m interested in what people think Wordsworth’s tone, his mood is, in this poem. If we just met him walking across the park -does he seem grumpy, angry with himself/things? I wonder what kind of day he has had to arrive at this place mental place? A day I can imagine all  too well, but then I walk it off. Nature does restore.
But don’t take your phone.