A Lovely Day and Some Worries

grandson no's 1+2 creating
Grandsons nos 1&2 working on something 

A number of problems about writing each day are becoming clear.

First, there’s a  problem about copyright which restricts my daily reading and writing. The question, dear readers, is: would you mind if I simply offered a link to a poem which  you can find elsewhere ? I’d read it and think about it, and quote from it but I would not reprint it…so you wouldn’t quite have it in front of you as you read. Does that matter or not? I think it probably does.

Second, there’s the problem of long poems. I’m not suggesting a reading The Divine Comedy or The Prelude here (yet) but I’m not sure if readers got sick of, bored with my reading of  Intimations of Immortality, which was spread over about two weeks.

I’d like to read some contemporary poems, and I’d like to read some long poems. So tell me what you think, please!

Meanwhile I’m going to jump the gun a little by starting a longish poem. As well as old favourites, long, short, ancient and modern, I also want to read poems that are new to me. So here is one, which I found while browsing in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

My third problem concerns the length of these posts. Some days I am very constrained by time but I try to have an hour for reading and writing.  If that includes choosing, too, then I am definitely short on time. But I am more bothered about when I’ve got longer. I don’t want these posts to be long. I want to keep them under 1000 words. Going to try to stick to that, which will mean stopping short some days. Today probably.

So, to the poem.

I’m sorry to admit I’ve never found a clear way through to Edmund Spenser, though my great literary mentor, Brian Nellist, has always been vocal in his love for everything Spenserian. I struggled with The Faerie Queene at University and don’t think I’ve ever read it since.  Brian also loves Sir Walter Scott and I’ve never happily read Scott either, so it may be that these are things particularly appealing to Brian’s personality and anti my own. But I wanted to give it another go.

I don’t know much about Spenser, and I’m interested to see if it is necessary to ‘know’.  I mainly don’t want to ‘know’ things about poets or their  worlds, I want to read the stuff itself, not about the stuff. For me it is a practical art and I want it to work practically, moving or enlightening or astounding me. So I’m not going to look up any facts about Spenser or the poem. I’m going to just going to read, ignorantly or  innocently, a bit at a time, and see what happens. (Reserving the right to stop, or even to look up some facts if things get desperate).

Prothalamion

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet-breathing Zephyrus did softly play—
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair;
When I, (whom sullen care,                                                                 5
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay
In princes’ court, and expectation vain
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain,)
Walk’d forth to ease my pain                                                             10
Along the shore of silver-streaming Thames,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meads adorn’d with dainty gems
Fit to deck maidens’ bowers,                                                              15
And crown their paramours
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

I have read Spenser’s poem about his marriage (Epithalamion) and remember  that ‘epithalamion’ means something like marriage, so quickly glanced at the dictionary to see what the difference is (epi is written specifically for the bride, pro simply in celebration of a marriage). There! I am quickly past the off-putting title and into the first stanza. All’s well.

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet-breathing Zephyrus did softly play—
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair;

If you are not a confident reader you might want to look up words that are strange to you, for security, as I did  the title above. In which case, look up ‘Zephyrus’. I  didn’t look that one – it’s something  Greek-god-ish to do with wind, gently blowing (I assure myself and carry on) and Titan is (from the lines here) the sun, and I remember-ish from my (oh so long ago, so forgotten) study of the Classics, that the Titans were the children of the Gods.

I tell you all this so you can see I am no expert, and am just using the ragbag of stuff  I’ve got in my mind already to get through the opening of the poem. I believe this is the best way to read. Get the gist, then look more closely at some of the words.

The gist here is, it is a lovely, lovely day. And our hero, Edmund Spenser, of whom we know virtually nothing, walks into view:

When I, (whom sullen care,                                                                 5
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay
In princes’ court, and expectation vain
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain,)
Walk’d forth to ease my pain

We don’t get a full stop anywhere here. I look up at the stanza, yes, it is one long sentence.  But it breaks down into what in music, and on a larger scale, would be called movements.   This second movement brings human discontent and mental affliction into direct confrontation with the lovely day. Spenser is still suffering whatever  has been the matter, though it is hard to tell what is being referred to by ‘which’. It could be any or all of  ‘sullen care’, ‘discontent’, ‘long fruitless stay’,’expectation vain’, ‘idle hopes’  – any or all of these, perhaps, but whatever it is/they are, they ‘still do fly away/like empty shadows’.

Bad feeling, that feeling of flickering discontent, things getting away from you.

My word count has got away from me – time to stop for today.

Early experiences in Shared Reading: Crossing the Bar

crossing

Today’s poem is an important one for me because, quite aside from its moving power in its own right,  it characterises my move from University English to Shared Reading and The Reader.

I don’t say, as I nearly did,  my move from the University to  the real world, because a University is as real as anything else, and is certainly part of ‘the world’  –  in fact you might say, the world is too much in them, to borrow and change a line from Wordsworth.

Before, during and after University  I  was a personal reader, and for that I have to thank my outsider status and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. ‘The personal is political’ was one of our slogans  a key thought for me, and I took it with me when I moved away from the radical feminism from which I had gained so much. ( ‘War is Menstrual Envy’ was another slogan that I loved, for some reason particularly annoying my very few male friends).

I don’t remember ‘the personal is political’ being applied to book-reading in the Women’s movement – there was a lot of heavy political theory there, as everywhere. But we read everything women had written, novels, poetry in order to try to build up a sense of a womens’ tradition. Through novels and poetry I got the personal experience of women, and at interview for University the exasperated inquisitor  asked me crossly, ‘Haven’t you read any books by men?’

Being a ‘personal reader’  in a University English department in the period 1980-2002 was no mean feat. People were trying to make literature part of the social and political sciences, to make it inhuman, de-personalised (and therefore perhaps budgetarily defensible, not a softee humanities thing  but hard as science, a brother to theoretical physics or plastics engineering). They were not happy times and I’m afraid the effect still lingers. I was lucky in that my teacher at University, Mr Brian Nellist  (I had others, but he was The One, and you can meet him here) was an old-fashioned non-theoretical reader, and he encouraged me to be one myself, and to read as myself, rather than always in terms of women and men. Though by then, I had stopped being motivated by gender inequality. Perhaps need to think more about that another time.

I did not have a Theory of Reading. I did not want to be self-conscious about my reading,  I just wanted to read literature and see what happened, what I could learn, what touched me, what I cared about.  Brian encouraged me, both as my third year tutor and as my Ph.D supervisor to to do that, finding out stuff that was useful and interesting to me. Essentially, he laid out this huge buffet of literature and said let’s walk up and down this, and see what strikes your fancy.

Even so, what happened was at a formal distance. I’d like to think more about what that means another time.

But to the poem. When I first began to have the idea of taking ‘great literature out of the university and into the hands of people who need it’ (not a snappy slogan but mine own) I had no idea of the power of the stuff I was going to unleash. Despite reading personally myself since I was child, and despite having chosen pieces that I thought most adults would find moving, I wasn’t prepared for tears. In nearly twenty years in the University, I had never seen anyone moved to tears by a poem.

In the very first shared reading groups, which were called ‘Get Into Reading’ (there were two, on different days of the week, one at Ganneys Meadow Early Years Centre, on Woodchurch Estate, and one at the Community College on Laird Street, Birkenhead. Both mixed, open community groups) and before that, before 2000, in the prototype experimental groups I ran before the Get Into Reading , which took place in St Cath’s Hospital Birkenhead and in Waterstones, Bold Street, Liverpool,  I read this poem.

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 In each group as I read, someone was moved to tears. In Waterstones’ after work reading group, a nurse who had come straight from Arrow Park hospital filled up with tears as I read. She said it was the line, ‘But such a tide as moving seems asleep’, which had got to her, because her Dad had died  when she was a teenager, and when he was alive they used to walk sometimes along the riverside and the tide…poetic image and reality had crashed together for her. Nothing has ever put it into words, she said, as if seeing ‘ it’ in words had caused the release of tears.

There are things you need to know (what a bar is, how it functions, what a pilot is in harbour terms…) to understand the poem but like all great poems, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know them. The music of the poem will carry most listeners far.

What is interesting to me as I look at it this morning is how Tennyson, writing about death, (all the people who cried in those early groups spoke of someone they loved who had died: the poem seemed to speak to them of particular deaths) is actually writing about, anticipating, his own death. Yet the poem reads – sounds – like an elegy for another. Or perhaps it simply touches all death by thinking of one particular one.

The ‘one clear call’ of the opening line is open to much interpretation. People in Shared Reading groups have said to me over the years, that it might be any kind of sign, just something that reminds you of mortality. The ‘call’ is now but the death is in the future;

And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

As I read these lines, they are coloured for me by the people I have read the poem with over many years –  the nurse (cannot remember her name) and Dorrie at Ganneys Meadow and a young woman with blond hair in the Laird Street group, and others. I think also of my own death – so much closer  now that when I read the poem in Ganneys Meadow, and the need for ‘no moaning’ seems more real and more pressing. Of course, ‘moaning of the bar’  in purely linguistic terms may be the noise made by waves  crashing against ‘the bar’ – the sandbar built up by currents in a harbour mouth or estuary… but is anything in a poem ever purely linguistic?  A word in a language  is like a bundle of sticks, a bundle of meanings (whose thought is this, please?). We put the sticks in the bundle according to our experience, memory. So I may  partly think of waves crashing far out in the  estuary, partly of my own complaining, partly of the sobbing of a bereaved friend.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

The poem, for all its sadness, is a brave one. ‘when I put out to sea’ does not feel like the end but rather a beginning.  It is a brave setting out on adventure, however terrifying.  The fact that the first two stanzas are one sentence seems to matter – there is no full stop after sea, but thethought caries on, after the line ending, after the ending of the stanza. and the second stanza is full of comfort.

But it is time to stop! oh dear. More tomorrow.

A bit more time management, plus the Cherry, hung with snow

cherry 18.04.JPG
Cherry blossom in my garden 18.04.17
I don’t know who created the management theory that time is elastic, and that you can fit in whatever you want to fit in, but it’s not true. It is true that time changes as we experience it, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, 168 in a week. but there are two types of time: there is time-experience which speeds up or slows down depending on the amount of  flow-concentration-energy you are putting into whatever is happening, and there is clock time, which ticks on whatever is happening.

Three thoughts I’ve picked up on this topic which have been helpful have  been (i) how slowly time would go if you were sitting on a hot stove (thanks Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap) (ii) how you’d find time to deal to deal  with a flood in your house, whatever was happening at work (thanks Laura Vanderkam at TED). These thoughts are both about priorities and pain – it hurts if you don’t attend to either of them, and so they shoot to the top of the list of priorities. Time management isn’t about  time  so much as what matters most.  You can’t do everything. Unless perhaps your name is Tim Ferris but even then… from Tim Ferris I picked up the third thought: (iii) it matters how you start your day. I used to know this once, but somehow  over the last twenty years had forgotten. Writing this blog every day is helping me remember. I’m giving an hour a day to reading, and writing about a poem. That’s seven hours reading I wasn’t previously doing. This choice has made me happy (and only a little bit late on a  couple of occasions).

Perhaps some of our inability to manage time comes from the refusal to accept the necessity of choice, and the subsequent inability then to act on such (unmade, perhaps unacknowledged) choices. Time management might be more helpfully called choice management. No poem does the simple sums about time, life and choices better than this, from A. E. Housman:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Believe me, this is a scary poem to read when you are sixty-one! That middle stanza is remorseless.

I do hope to live beyond 70, but everything now frankly  feels a blessing: I know quite people of my age who have died. So I’ll stick bravely with Housman’s computation and recast it for myself: Now, of my threescore years and ten, / Sixty-one will not come again… only leaves me nine more! Ouch and aieee! Why the hell would I be  doing anything that wasn’t vitally important to me? Have I seen the cherry blossom?

I run out into the garden for another look.

Last time I read this poem was in an NHS addiction service centre, sometime in the last ten years. I thought then it was a bit of a risky poem to take, given quite a lot of us in the room were over 50, and I guessed that like me, quite a few people might feel (a little) frightened by the poem,  after all we’d all wasted quite a lot of time one way or another. But I thought you might only be a little frightened by the poem. And indeed, there’s something so tender and quiet in its tone, something so strong in its resolve, that no one was scared, and everyone agreed they would go for a walk and look for cherry blossom this week. Does making that choice affect one’s chances of recovery? I think every strong choice affects one’s chances.

I find the poem’s sums strengthening. You could ignore or not notice the first stanza, yeah, yeah, blossoms, again, so what. It’s a normal verse about normal blossom. you are in a normal state of mind as you read it. But the killer second stanza, quite unexpected  – yet not really unexpected, is it? Because the key thing about cherry blossom is its transience, it’s there and gone. Fifty chances to see it? That’s not enough!

‘Fifty springs are little room’ and I sure as hell don’t have  fifty ahead of me. Maybe twenty, maybe none for all I know. Therefore I finish writing a little early today, so I can get to Calderstones Park before I need to be in the office. I will go walk around and see the blossom. What could be more important?
See the late, great Denis Potter, two months before his death, discuss this blossom with Melvyn Bragg, here.

Time management: A Meditation Upon Flowers

tulips
Tulips pushing up through spring leafage

Bishop Henry King’s poem has a lot of offer the  contemporary blue-arsed fly.

I arrived home after nearly two weeks away in Sweden, where Spring is only just creeping into view. But here, in that short time,  much has changed. The magnolia flower on my new tree has been and gone.  The sweet-smelling viburnums are almost done.  Much lush green stuff has sprung and the (not ornamental but fruit providing) cherry is hung with its lacy, vulnerable blossom along the bough.

apple n cherry blossom .JPG
Cherry blossom behind the apple blossom

Against the kitchen wall there’s a red, red rose out in flower.

red rosebud
Red Rose in bud growing through mint

All this lovely energy makes me want to garden! And I did, a little, yesterday. And to read garden books, which I did last night. And to resolve anew, ‘This year I will garden every day. Oh, every week. Oh, OK, as often as possible.’

Yes and see my children and grandchildren, and my few beloved friends, and make time to be kind to my ancient mum and to read and  write every day and take exercise and eat ten portions of vegetables and makes sure I’ve done my prep for every meeting at work and I’m never going to get to a yoga class and the idea of ten minutes a day on the cello was crossed off years ago and even without those longed-for last two items my list of things is getting to the point where it begins to look undo-able.

I need to get some perspective  and where I go for that perspective is Bishop Henry King. Because the tulips in my garden, the orange pointy tulips which have appeared since I went to Sweden have reminded me of his poem, a long time favourite. Brave flowers, they look, gallant and doing what they can do, putting forth in the way they can put forth. But obeying a certain discipline, too. Here they are, shining out like hearts on fire in the morning garden, and reminding me of  the  planting of them, which I did very late, maybe late November. I’d bought them  full of good intentions and then forgotten to plant them and then found them beginning to moulder and thought, ‘What the heck, go and stick ’em in…’  And I had done so in a matter of minutes one Saturday morning in a frenzy of annoyance at myself for having forgotten to do them, but hoping they’d turn out ok, which, as I now see, they have. And the moral of this story is…

Bishop King is meditating on his own death. That makes my meditation on time management look a little trivial. But there is a relationship between the two. Part of my increasing desire for the thing I find hard to achieve – order – is to do with knowing death is coming, if not now, sometime. Like most people, for a very long time, I did not really believe that to be the case. When we are young we live – I lived – as if  life was for ever, which is a good thing when you are young. But now I am not young I know that life is short, and may end sooner than you think. As far as I know there’s nothing the matter with me – nothing that being thirty years of age wouldn’t cure. But I’m not thirty, I am sixty-one. I want to make some priorities because I don’t want to die thinking I did the wrong things with my time. I wouldn’t like to die thinking I wasted it. Therefore, given the limited resource of self, priorities must be made. I am going to ask myself to get into the garden for ten minutes a day.

 

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

I love the fact that the ‘show’ the flowers make is described as ‘harmless’. The flowers. ‘brave’ and ‘gallant’ as they are,  are like men in fancy royalist hats  with ostrich feathers, rich velvet robes, colour. ( Have a quick look at the etymology of the word gallant here) You might call all that vain, and in humans perhaps it is so, but in flowers, no, this is not vanity:  flowers are ‘harmless’. That’s quite a leap from ‘vain’ to ‘harmless’. Of course vanity can be hugely destructive, can  be harmful. Humans come abroad flaunt themselves about and make a harmful mess… And when I say humans, Henry King says ‘I’.

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

It’s as if fancy clothes, those ’embroider’d garments’ (that surely Henry must have worn himself as a Bishop) are a potentially harmful show that can damage humans by causing pride and vanity. The flowers know their birth, know the ’embroider’d garments’, know they come up, and gallant it,  and then go down to earth again. We tend to forget that our embroider’d garments (whatever they are, beauty, status, power, money, ego) are also as earthy and as  temporally fragile. Whatever you got, it don’t last!

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

The reason Bishop King meditates upon flowers is to set aside time in which to think about death. His natural inclination would be never to ‘think of such a thing.’  Therefore he has to make the equivalent of a modern day ‘to-do’ list;

1. Think abut my own death.

He has to set aside specific time to do this because, left to himself,  naturally, he wouldn’t do it. Flowers are better at this than us. They are part of the natural rhythm of earth’s seasons, and they  ‘do obey … months and times.’  ‘Obey’ makes the flowers subservient to a law greater than themselves but Henry King, left to himself, doesn’t want to obey such laws;

… I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.

The pressing, unignorable reality of being a self-willed human creature is  – almost a law unto itself – and is held in place in this stanza by the double rhyme (I/die, Spring/thing are the line-ending rhymes but  look how they are  undercut by the internal rhyme of ‘ever’ and ‘never’). Bishop King, having set aside a little time in which to do it,  tries to imagine his death, his being dead and buried, but can’t seem to even see it, and if he could see it, knows he would not  be able to maintain a cheerful, gallant a brave composure;

O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

That’s why the mediation ends with a resolve to try to learn;

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

The word ‘truce’ in the second line here is a clue to the seriousness of the problem. He’s at war with his own mortality! Does the opening line of this stanza mean that he is so afraid of Death that he cannot even see it, or that he does see it and it fills him with fear?  Certainly King has seen flowers at many a funeral (the fragrance helpful in keeping the smell of mortality away). The breath that Bishop King hopes may ‘sweeten and perfume’ his death would be the breath of prayer or whatever words he might say at the end. They need to be good, strong, gallant words, not frightened battle cries. He and the flowers would be in harmony then, both in their different ways sweetening and perfuming his end.

Yes, it is a meditation on death, but I feel it is also a call to life.  To ‘come abroad and make a harmless show’ in the face of mortality and time-ah running out: it asks us to go on with the show (but also know what kind of show it is.)

Thank you Bishop King, thank you, tulips.

Quietening the noisy years

thrush outside
Thrush near the back porch, Tyreso 11 April

Yesterday in my reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’  I had got to this point;

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

You can read the whole poem here.  Read it aloud.

I was thinking about our experiences when we are on the very edge of what we can know, how often that must feel like knowing nothing, or being afraid, or at least, to use Wordsworth’s words, like ‘blank misgivings’. A misgiving = a feeling of doubt. Wordsworth’s poem helps me think that doubts are the very thing  I should be most glad of because they  give the clue to ‘something’ else. I am thinking about my own doubt – sorry, endlessly repeated here – about my ability to use the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’.  That inability, which  might be also be identified as under the heading  ‘fallings from us, vanishings’ might be a clue that there is something evading my current language, something my mind does not understand. Hence ‘misgiving’ rather than outright rejection.

Thus, Wordsworth gives thanks,

…for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
He continues;
High instincts before which our mortal Nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

Agh  – so much to  take in, so much to  understand and think through. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how much reading I get done each day, so long as the reading itself is happening. But I am going to try to read this whole section today. Take a breath, it might be a long posting.

The ‘obstinate questionings’ are, he now understands, ‘high instincts’. Brilliant to name them as ‘high’  because of course we usually think of instincts as ‘low’, as ‘animal. These blank misgiving /high instincts are not part of ‘our mortal Nature’, they are from, as he says in the opening stanza, ‘elsewhere’. Wordsworth gets the poem (and me, reading) to a point between experienced knowledge and language. When we give them their due, those ‘blank misgivings’ become or are clues to something else. When we feel that kind of feeling, unnameable, powerful, not in language, bigger than us then it seems our mortal Nature feels worried, small and, in Wordsworth feeling of it, guilty,  as if it had done something wrong. (I’m thinking of the novel The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, a novel profoundly influenced by Wordsworth, I’d guess.  My book of the year last year, terrific story of a man troubled by High Instincts)

High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

I don’t know about the guilty feeling so I’m leaving that aside for the time being, trying to go with the flow of Wordsworth’s mind, not against it. When do I feel like this?  I think,

Gazing into the eyes of a new-born baby.
Looking at the earth from the top of a mountain.
At the edge of the ocean.
When faced with azure blue in sky or water.
Looking at the stars, the moon on a cold clear night.
Flying over Greenland.
Sometimes when walking.
Seeing Earth stir to life after winter.
Gardening or looking closely at plants as they change
When lost in reading  or writing at the edge of my ability.

The feelings of ‘more than normal’ , these ‘high instincts’, are about (for me) the spreading of   – growth of – consciousness to its very limits. You can’t think, you can only experience without language to express the experience.  At such moments that we are operating beyond what the poem calls ‘the light of common day.’ This can be frightening. maybe that is why he says ‘High instincts before which our mortal Nature / Did tremble’?

I’m still hanging back from the word ‘guilty’! And I’m going to go on now…

As I’ve been reading something has been  bothering me. I wanted to know  if Wordsworth was writing from direct experience –   the experience of very young children seems so central to the poem. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Wordsworth had had two children by the time he wrote Intimations (Caroline, born to Annette Vallon, France 1792, and  John, born to Wordsworth’s  wife Mary Hutchinson,  born 1803) I wondered if that 11 year gap between his first child and his second affected his thinking about babies. Certainly possible to imagine that  it made him  concentrate very hard on his little son.

But back to the poem.  Wordsworth picks up again the thread about  what exactly it is that he gives thanks for – not the straightforward happy stuff of childhood, ‘delight and liberty’, but, the sense continues (let’s take a run at it, shall we?)

… for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if Wordsworth stops trying to work it out and accepts that he can’t know what those intimations are  – ‘Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may’ and yet – even if we don’t know what they are, they

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

These moments of intimations of something ‘more than, whatever they are, are now ‘a fountain-light…a master-light’.  They move into  the present tense, indeed beyond that, into what feels a permanent present, with that repetition of ‘are yet’. When you plug into this mode there’s a shift, ‘common day’ is absolutely gone (and yet are we still in it?)

The intimations now seem both the source of light (‘fountain-light’) and also the key to the way we see things (‘master-light of all our seeing’). They feel like parents  – as opposed perhaps to   the ‘homely Nurse’, Earth, who tries to help us settle into her foster-care earlier in the poem.  These original feelings – ‘which, be they what they may’ – ‘uphold us, cherish…’

Yes, I’m thinking it is as if we have something in us, innate, often long-lost, like instinct, that holds on the to the super-natural – not just of Earth – part of us.  These experiences, look after us , cherish … and when we connect  with that innate, instinct part of self, then  ‘our noisy years’ (daily life, common day, all that we do in our busy-ness) are reduced to

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

When I’m reading this, I am trying all the time to think  ‘Do I know this?’ Partly the poem helps me know it  – by sharing its experience, by putting me through it. I’m thinking of times when I feel the ‘noisy years’ are quietened and I feel my life is a moment  ‘in the being of the eternal Silence’. (Is that another word for God? I think it is, and one I am much more easy with using). There are such moments. I recall them now as I write.

I’m going to finish this section.

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if now Wordsworth has  established to himself his own sense of what those intimations are, as if he has cleared a path to them, can hear, feel, see, experience them, and he knows that once he has  experienced this clarity, he’ll not lose it again. These are ‘truths that wake/to perish never.’

Then he remembers ordinary life, the common day (listlessness/mad endeavour/man/boy), feels its threat, is finally untroubled by it  – nothing can now destroy what he knows.

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

We can go to that place, to that experience of more-than-this, we can re-find the source, the sea, and, wonderfully, can ‘in a moment travel thither’.  This seems a very different feeling to the place the poem started, when the pressure of such a move frightened Wordsworth and seemed to hurt him with loss. Remember…

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

Yet now the glory is available to him, in a moment, he can experience the original powerful feeling of connection to something/somewhere ‘afar’. He’s got to this by or through the course of the poem – and so  have I, following his movements of thought and feeling.

There’s more for tomorrow but time to stop now.

More Obstinate Questionings

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Moving about in worlds not realised, under pines in Tyreso

In which I continue my daily reading of portions of  Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, which you can read in full here.

Yesterday I read the section beginning;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

Thy Soul’s immensity;

And I continued to try to think again about ‘soul’ and ‘immortality’. While on the walk yesterday, Phil reminded me about the bit in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, where Jack says – I paraphrase – ‘soul is what’s left after everything else is gone.’

In light of that, I wonder about what makes up the essential in a human being and whether the essential comes with us when we are born – certainly in the case of my own children, I felt that to be so.  In myself there seems a core which is not to do with what has happened to me, or what I have become – that is ‘identity’.  But is the core feeling , under identity, under personality,  or that personality is built up from, what I mean by soul?

And, because this poem is asking me to think about it, I also have to ask,  beyond ‘soul’, do I believe a universal presence, in God?  But I cannot use the word ‘God’ in any real, live way, and even ‘believe’ seems the wrong word. Like ‘soul’ it feels overlaid with too many old meanings, other people’s meanings , dead-to-me meanings, to be of any use. Putting it to myself like this – do I believe in God? – I am not thinking of it in a helpful way.

But there is something? Energy, certainly, and the move towards individuation we see in all nature, each living thing always energetically pursuing the shape of itself. Is there intelligence in it? Not  like any human intelligence. Is there love? Yes,  but that may be our part in it, to apprehend love, to know it, to feel it. It seems to me as if the universal force is one of creative, and destructive, energy. And why does it matter to me that humans should try to be good and is there a connection between that and ‘soul’ or ‘God’, those unavailable words?  T.E. Hulme defined Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’ , and I vaguely remember that accusation being put me during my Ph.D. viva thirty odd years ago.  I think the accusation was something like ‘because you don’t believe in God, you see God everywhere in nature and in humans…’  I think my  answer then was ‘Mm… maybe.’

If these questions and bad answers are the wrong way to think of it, what is the right way? The disciplines developed by religions over thousands of years seem useful – prayer, observation, hope. I don’t perform any religious practice. For me walking in the woods, gardening and reading provide ways to do those things. Form doesn’t matter, only what happens within or through the form

But to the poem. The next section is a really long one, and a hard one. There is  one very long sentence. I paste some of it here, but will only get through a few lines;

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

The opening four lines of this section is one of the few bits of poetry I often remember and  say to myself. ‘Embers’ is a disturbing word – heat and death in one. but the oddest thing here is the tense – that ‘nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!’ – as if the thing remembered , the intimation, was even at the time of the experience only passing, merely ‘fugitive; we’re chasing the shadow of a shadow of a feeling.

Wordsworth feels that thinking on these echoes of memories bring him ‘perpetual benediction’   –  constant blessings and the chief of these is not (love Wordsworth’s negatives, always important) practical things that translate into adult life ( into politics, for example, creed of liberty, etc), no, not for these, good as they are and ‘most worthy to be blest’;

Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

This is for me a key moment in the poem and one that  I have been trying to understand and live through during the span of my adult life. The ‘obstinate questionings’ are recognisably human: I’m sure most of us have experienced them. But that Wordsworth would  then go on to elaborate these as ‘ fallings from us, vanishings’ is surprising and  where poetry, not day-to-day autobiography takes hold.

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

How would this experience feel? Do I remember anything like this, or  is the poem making be feel/experience it now as I read? The sense that there are ‘worlds not realised’ and that we might – even now – be ‘moving about in them’ is a wonderful mind-opener, bringing on the very blankness Wordsworth is talking about. What are these ‘worlds’? For me they are new thoughts.  Reading on the edge of understanding, trying to bring  new thoughts into new language, losing myself in a state of creative blankness, that’s one of the most powerful creative experiences I have – making me function – as Wordsworth says when describing mind in The Prelude, as ‘creator and receiver both’. We cease to be human and become ‘Creature’,  creature with misgivings, too, worried, unable to rely on what we knew before, not knowing where we are… yet that place, that experience, is the key one for human creativity. To be lost, uncertain, unknowing is to have the  discovery of worlds all before me.  Why not be afraid? Because surely this is worrying state?

But time is up – let’s leave that thought til tomorrow.

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.

The Comfortable Lap

old-woman vermeer
Day three in Uppsala, today to meet researchers, some from Uppsala, also Anders Olhsen and his colleague from Lund who are developing a Chronic Pain project,  and Nicolai Ladegaard who works with Mette Steenberg in Aarhus, Denmark.

Meeting the participants of the workshop to get shared Reading going in Sweden over the past two days has made me think about what the essentials are – trying to explain to people who are working in a second language what it is and what it is not – talking to Nikolai last night about why we do not formally ‘frame the discussion’… I have been thinking about when Paul Sinton-Hewitt came to speak to us at The Reader, and talked about having a set of principles which all Parkruns agree to.  At some point yesterday I wondered if  such a set of principles would be useful to us at The Reader.

I listened to Phil describing some of the CRILS work during one of the sessions yesterday. Most of it is research I’ve already seen, read or watched him present. But I was struck by some of the thinking that has arisen from interviewing Shared Reading participants – how when something happens in reading people feel almost physically got-at by the experience – ‘hit’ , ‘struck’, ‘ambushed’. Alongside that the brain scanner research showing that  when people are reading in this way they are using the part of the brain that is activated when we attempt to learn a second language. Also that making what is called a ‘prediction error’  – assuming something is going to mean or be one thing and finding out it isn’t then activates the pleasure centres of the brain. (Sorry, neuro-people, I am  doing this from memory, not notes, and probably mangling it horribly. Take this as a gist). We are set up to learn, from a survival point of view, making a mistake in understanding and rectifying it is a good thing. Because I’ve been reading Habit by Charles Duhigg, I thought, habit (another powerful evolutionary survival tool for humans) in one direction is always trying to make us stay the same, do the same, think the same. But pleasure is activated when we also break habit, change, learn. As D.H.Lawrence says, ‘we must balance as we go.’

If we want to go. Often habit wins, and we want to stay in the same place.

But I don’t have long this morning and must get on with my reading. I’ve been reading each day a little portion of the Immortality Ode with William Wordsworth, which you can read in full here.   Yesterday I was reading and thinking about ‘heaven lies about us in our infancy’ and that as we grow older ‘the light’ seems to fade into ‘the light of common day.’  That section comes to an end, as if Wordsworth has followed a chain of thought and then come to a stop: sometimes you just can’t think any further. The whole poem is like that – take a run at it,  have a go at getting it into words, work through this bit of thought, then stop, pause and pick up again somewhere else. It’s like a man untangling a very large, very knotty ball of string. He’s already said, ‘the soul that rises with us … cometh from afar…’ and now here he is starting in a new place;

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

When I read ‘Earth fills her lap’ I see a Vermeer or Rembrandt  woman in a capacious house-dress,  sitting in a chair, her lap awaiting some chunky toddler. I remember that Wordsworth was a young boy when his mother died. I think of the comfort he took in ‘Earth’.  But as the lines go on I go into a more SF mode, perhaps to do with  thinking of us humans as foster-children of the planet. And then ‘inmate’  with its connotations of prisoner-hood. Earth loves us and tries to make us feel at home but, as Chaucer says, ‘here is noon home.’

It doesn’t feel a bad thing that Earth tries to love us and to make us forget our real home. These new habits of being ‘of Earth’ can literally ground us, which can be, if not too grounded, a good thing. But turning into earth, clod, inert-stuck-by-gravity-stuff? Not so good. But then, after all, we can’t go back, so acclimatising may be the best thing. Then I am thinking, acclimatising to a foster-home is ok, but acclimatisng to a prison? (is that the meaning of ‘inmate’? I have a quick look in the dictionary.  Yes it is, but the older sense of ‘lodger’ too.)

Reading these eight lines I mainly feel comfort, uncut by the original loss. I’m glad of ‘homely’ Earth. I want the comfort of the ‘lap’. But  I miss the ‘glories’, and the memory of the ‘Imperial Palace’ makes me realise I’ve changed my state very substantially. Something massive and of a completely different order is lost.

Do I believe in soul? Something that survives my physical body? Not really, or don’t know.

So why do these lines work so powerfully for me?

They connect to some feelings, intimations, I have had or  still have. Perhaps the lines themselves help me have those intimations, pointing out some sort of category error, or need for rethink. I may not be able to use the word ‘soul’ but I do not believe we are just live meat. So what are we? Why do I think consciousness (but I don’t mean consciousness, becasue  some of it is nor conscious: after all ,the poem is called ‘Intimations’)  is more than electricity and oxygen in neural pathways?

This is making me think of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads but no time for that, time for work.

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

apple blossom
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!