The Babe Leaps Up

babe leaps up
Baby Grace leaping up in her mothers arms in an office at The Reader

Been reading – very slowly – Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality here all week and not got very far. You’ll find the whole poem here. But I’m only up to this bit;

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Today I’ve got a piece in the Comment section of The Observer about why we need a reading revolution. In it, I remember seeing a baby, one of those gorgeous chunky one-year-olds, leaping up in his mother’s arms on a doorstep in North Birkenhead and thinking ‘that baby will never read Wordsworth’. That thought (or was it a feeling?) helped propel me into creating The Reader.

But why, in a hard life, and that baby’s was almost certainly going to be a hard life, would Wordsworth matter at all? Why not concentrate on housing and vegetables? Of course, we need those things but as Rose Schneiderman famously said, we need bread and roses. And we need them at the same time. Humans have inner lives and those inner lives have profound effect on our ability to  renew roofs and grow vegetables, to create a sour-dough bakery in an area down-on-its-uppers, to develop a rose-growing business out of a wasteland.

Poetry matters because we might have forgotten, as Gillian Clarke writes in Miracle on St Davids Day, that we have anything to say. Of a mute labouring man in a mental health ward, moved to speech by poetry, she writes;

Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

What we, in the our time, call ‘mental health’ or ’emotional experience’ is really about inner being, the most complicated, uncharted, rewarding and dangerous parts of human experience. I wish we had other names for this stuff. Our present vocabulary feels as unhelpful as grunts would be in working out the impact of black holes on the development of the universe. For one thing, calling it ‘mental health’ allows a good  half of the population to think it is nothing to do with them. But everyone has inner life, emotional experience. Our ability to understand and learn from it is a vital part of our human survival kit, as the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion writes;

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

The World Health Organisation tells us that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. We are failing to learn from our own emotional experience partly because we do not have the language to think about it; at best we talk about this stuff in terms of ‘mental health’. But we should be speaking of  ‘human experience’.

That’s why we need great literature – Wordsworth, Kate Beaton, George Herbert, George Eliot, George Saunders, Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Connor, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anton Chekov, Jeanette Winterson, Tolstoi, Dave McKee, Shirley Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Jon Klassen, Marilynne Robinson and all the rest of them.

We need great literature and we need to relate to it in a different way. Our current way organising education so often turns it into dead stuff, despite the best efforts of good teachers. Great literature isn’t dead, it is just waiting for readers to make contact. Pupils who are being taught there are correct answers are not readers, they are exam-passers.

As a young mature student of twenty-five, the previously benefits-living single mother of a five-year old child, I first read Wordsworth  in the summer between first and second year when I was thinking of  dropping out of my university course due to class-dislocation. My goodness, but I felt unhappy and out-of-place.I can remember, across a lifetime now, the shock of recognition I felt when I first read these words;

—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Though I felt massively excited by these lines, I did not ‘understand’ a word.

I did not know what  the ‘Tree’ was.
I did not know whether the ‘single field’ was real or not.
I did not know why it was a ‘pansy’.

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

Being moved, being touched, being excited in ways you don’t understand is what matters. It leaves you in a place where you can ask questions. And why is asking questions good? Because that’s how we learn!

I did not know what ‘the visionary gleam’ was but I knew I knew about its absence.
I did not know what ‘the glory’ was, nor ‘the dream’ neither, but I knew I missed them both.
The words spoke to some feeling I had and did not understand.
The feeling was about ‘something that is gone’.

There is no amount of on-curriculum study that would have made any of this clearer to me – I had to absorb the questions and realise, over years, that they were clues to hard-to-reach parts of my self. I’ve been reading this poem for thirty-six years. It still works, I still don’t understand it, it still gets me to ask questions!

What we’ve found  in sixteen years of Shared Reading is that  working out feelings and language with other people is easier than doing it on your own. I am grateful to the University curriculum for making me read Wordsworth and I’ve tried to translate that into Shared Reading (don’t just read what you already know and like). Without that looming second-year course on Romantics I’d never have read Wordsworth of my own volition, because it was too far, it seemed from my own experience. But that’s the thing about great writing, it is never far from your own experience. That’s what makes it great.

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

viburnum close.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

viburnum form.JPG

 

 

Noticing feels like love

 

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

 

Wordsworth’s  Intimations of Immortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to read in a Shared Reading group

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

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Now, I’ve pasted all those lines in, but I might spend a long time at the beginning of a group thinking about the title of this poem, otherwise it might seem like a meaningless collection of long words.
‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of  Early Childhood.’
Does anyone remember the feelings of early childhood?  Some people say they can remember being in their pram, looking up into the trees, seeing the blossoms, as in the picture above.
I remember my sister being born, I was five. I remember being picked up to see her through  a ground floor hospital window. It would have been March and I remember it as sunny. There  were wallflowers and I could smell their scent, powerful, peppery, sweet. Only when I get to the scent do I feel I am getting into ‘immortality’. The scent moves me, almost literally transports me. Is this the kind of early childhood memory Wordsworth is talking about?
What is an ‘intimation’  – have you ever experienced one?  The Online Etymological Dictionary tells me it means “action of expressing by suggestion or hint, indirect imparting of information” .
And what would an ‘intimation of  immortality’ feel like ? Perhaps none of us in the group can imagine that. Perhaps someone will surprise us with a profoundly poetic explanation of their take on it.
I’m already thinking I’ve made a mistake in imagining I can read this poem in a session, even a two-hour one!
Time’s up!  Why does writing take so long? More tomorrow.

Composing order

police tape

Home now, and grateful for home, the birds singing this morning as if nothing had had happened. Yesterday at another day of meetings in London, I walked up Buckingham Palace Road, around the Mall. Tourists were there, as usual , but quiet, sombre.  A large group of Japanese tourists stood for a photograph beneath a flowering cherry in Green Park, hands on each others shoulders, sedate, respectful.  Londoners going about their business as usual, but quieter. Two people spoke to me about the IRA bombings and how Londoners had lived through that time.

As I came out of Charing Cross Road tube I remembered that the night before, walking up Whitehall once we were let out of the no 1 Parliament Street building on Wednesday, seeing a police barrier that was no more than a strip  of blue and white tape tied, at one end, to a railing, and at the other, to a police bicycle, which stood leaning on its kick-stand, against nothing. Never seen a more figurative barrier. With one finger, anyone could have pushed that bike, with its wisp of blue and white tape, to the ground, walked around it. But no one had.

I was grateful to it, in a way I had not expected. I was grateful to the rule of law.
This morning I wanted to read a poem about law, but struggled to find the right thing.  Help needed.

But I found this. The American poet, and lawyer, Archibald Macleish, writes,

The business of the law is to make sense of the confusion of what we call human life – to reduce it to order but at the same time to give it possibility, scope, even dignity. But what, then, is the business of poetry? Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.

“Apologia” speech (Harvard Law Review, Cambridge, June 1972)

Instead of poems about the rule of law, I found myself reading at poems that  were about the absence of it, poems of chaos, or war, of terrible times. The simplest and most lovely is this tiny anonymous poem, perhaps written by a soldier, a conscript  – I imagine him lying under a hedge, in a  ditch, waiting for daylight. But it could be any of us, feeling afraid, cold, in the dark. Yesterday morning someone speaking from the  Metropolitan Police asked people  in London to be kind to police officers, ‘smile at them, say hello’.  It could be an officer on duty, beside his bike, on Whitehall.

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

The first two lines make me feel the cold, the wet, the persistence of ‘small rain’ – that soaking thin stuff, like cloud.  The prayer or expletive, ‘Christ!’ – sometimes hard to tell  them apart, the impulse that forces the word out perhaps the same whether it is uttered as prayer or as expletive. It seems to take several beats of the poem to say it. ‘Christ.’

The whole poem rests on the ‘if’ – everything would be different. I imagine a place  of safety, of love. And for a moment, perhaps, I feel that safety, that love.  This tiny poem makes ‘sense of the chaos of our lives’, as MacLeish says. I imagine the experience – the wind, the rain, the being out away from home – without the language of the poem and only feel pain, pain with the additional pain of being unable to speak. The poem does indeed compose ‘an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize’.

I  had not imagined ‘order’ would be an important word for me, but now I think I need to give it more thought.

Not today, though, out of time.

Primary feelings

jane at 10.png
The author aged ten, with inefficient hairband, plus pearls

Turned the Oxford Book of English Verse page from William Blake (see yesterday’s post) to find myself in Robbie Burns country.  I stopped for a moment to wonder if ‘Address to the Unco  Guid’ was the poem for me today – no, too long, but what a great last couple of lines – looking at others, judging them, from the outside, Burns tells the  rigidly righteous, is no good;

What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

It’s brilliantly realistic that  even ‘what’s done’ we can’t fully know – the outside, visible bit of someone else’s actions. And then the caution – we absolutely can’t know ‘what’s resisted.’ We don’t know and can’t imagine someone else’s inner battles.

Then I stopped to enjoy ‘John Anderson, my Jo’ and  though I think it is a love song (my Jo = my beloved, sweetheart) I thought of long friendship and some of the hills I have climbed (not literally, think we’ve only done that once, Beeston Hill, with some German students) with my old friend Angie, and how now,

Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go…

Hand in hand, dear old friend, tottering down. Lovely. I passed right over ‘The Silver Tassie’  with the  thought ‘drinking song, not interested’ – though as to that,  when I looked more closely it is also a  man going to war love  song, so maybe worth reading another day, but for now my eye been caught by ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ and I know already, without reading, that’s the poem for today. Why? I know it so well, almost off by heart.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn
Thou minds me o’ departed joys
Departed never to return

Aft hae I rov’d by bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine
And ilka bird sang o’ its love
And fondly sae did I o’ mine
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree
But my false lover stole my rose
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me

Like ‘Jerusalem’ this one has been with me a  very long time. I learned it as a song in Eastham Village Primary School, where singing was one of the weekly lessons. We had a  school songbook in which other favourites of mine were  Hearts of Oak, Greensleeves,  The Skye Boat Song…But this was my top favourite. Now I must ask myself, why? Most the language was incomprehensible.  I was nine or ten. I didn’t know anything about love or broken hearts.

I remember knowing it was partly about landscape – I think I knew , certainly know now as I try to remember what knowing the words of this lyric meant, that it was about place and heart, and that place was lovely and loveliness made the song/me sad.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

The side by side-ness of  the outside lovely world ‘so fresh and fair’ and the inside world of me ‘ I sae weary ful of care’,  is the main thing. Seeing light against darkness,  joy right up against sorrow casts  strong  emphasis on both states. What interests me remembering this is what was there in me then as a ten-year old that responded so powerfully to this split? I do not think  I was unhappy  – not more unhappy than anyone else suffering the humiliations and sorrows of childhood at that time. Did the song touch  parts of my experience that were not yet in my consciousness ?

My parents had recently divorced, we had moved many times, Eastham Village  was my fifth primary school in as many years. Was I ‘weary and ful o care?’ My mum was ill, and struggling as a single parent with four children, was beginning the drinking that would  lead to her alcoholism. How much did I realise of all that?  Not very much. It wouold be another two years – aeons in child-time – before it began to get to me enough to make me run away from home. But was the song  speaking to that growing  unhappiness ?

When we are very unhappy, things of joy seem to hurt us. I seem to remember (aware I could be making most of this up!) that I knew the sound of those birds, and that birdsong contains a sadness, or provokes it, late Spring birdsong  does sometime pierce that heart –

How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

How? how? asks the poet , as if unable to hold together the co-existence of joy with his sorrow. How can there even be other-than-this?

How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds…?

I’m thinking of Wordsworth lines ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief/and I again am strong’ – Tintern Abbey isn’t it?  I think finding ways of express otherwise unexpressed feelings is a key to some sort of equilibrium. Not that I became a balanced teenager. But I did survive my childhood and adolescence with something intact or strong enough to keep growing.

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ George Eliot writes, at the end of Middlemarch.  Small things such  as giving children a way of enjoying songs and poems and stories that hold or express feelings  might  make a difference to  our growing child mental health problems. Certainly, things might have been much worse with me if I had not had this and other poems in my soul repertoire.

 

True or False? (with a good picture of my heroine, Marilynne Robinson, devotee of the truer life)

2011-05-18 12.31.02 HDR
Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.

Another poem I’ve not read before, today by Henry Vaughan, a wonderfully visionary poet who is not afraid to  tell his own experience in the boldest of strokes (‘I saw eternity the other night/Like a great ring of pure and endless night’).

How I choose: I’m looking for something that matches something in me. I don’t necessarily know what that thing is…sometimes it is a feeling that has not yet come into words. Sometimes I don’t want to put it into words, sometimes simply cannot. I read through the book and start poems, and it is lovely to recognise and sometimes reread old favourites (in the case of Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’, ‘Peace’, ‘They are all gone into the world of light’ ‘The World’, ‘The Waterfall’.) But I am looking, if possible, for poems I don’t yet know, and for something that touches, matches a thought or  feeling I have. Today I found it in this poem.

Quickness

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

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

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

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

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

I read it through quickly and feel a connection – true or false, yes, recognise that – then reread, again quickly,  trying to get the whole thing, the overview. Two kinds of being – the true and the false, both experienced by a human, both going by the same name, ‘life’. Yes, I know this.

‘False life’ Vaughan begins, as if he had just woken up and stopped mid-track to realise, ‘this is  wrong!’. I have to look up ‘foil’ because although I think I know what it means, suddenly in this context, I am not sure that I do.

False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?

Foil = defeat, prevent, comes from Old French ‘fouler’ trample down , Middle English, ‘foil’ trample. So the false life is the thing that prevents or stops the true life, and is active in defeating it. I’d read ‘foil’ as a kind deflecting shield, but it’s more than that,  it is an active agent against the true. And feels like something reared up in your path, something that you can’t get round. ‘When/wilt thou be gone?’ And it is both inside and out:

Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

The ‘foul deception’ seems both to deceive ‘all men/that would not have the true come on’ and to be the thing ‘all men’ do. This is really interesting! All such men create this foul deception to prevent truth coming on, but it also deceives them.

Do we allow ourselves to be deceived when we don’t want to know something – of course! (speaking for myself alone here, obviously) Do we create that deception in ourselves? You bet we do. I love this little knot of deception, self-deception, Vaughan has created, cleverly, to match our real experience.

Ok, here is what ‘false life’ feels like:

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

Moon because moonlight is a mirror of the real light of the sun, so the moon is pale reflection of something else. But ‘toil’? Oh, I’m really enjoying this – it is  so  knotty, such surprising syntactical formulation. ‘Toil’?  I’m thinking of the physical heft of getting yourself up to roll around the sky reflecting the sun, but also , the hard business of the bits of life I don’t want to do (toiling at the admin, the greasy washing up left from night before, the intractable HR issues, the distresses, the inflating of car tyres on the very sleety day, the necessity of telling small children off, working on a weekend when you want to be in the garden, having to have to do with people you don’t like: ‘toil’). Is being false, living falsely, not being one’s most true self, also such toil and am I even aware of it?

I’m not sure what he means by ‘a blind/self posing state’ – maybe ‘posing’ is short for ‘imposing’? Maybe it means striking a pose? (But also blindly,  as if stupidly self unknown). And then it is even less – just mess and noise:

A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

So that’s what it is like when it is false – not right, unquick. When I am just going through some kind of false motion. Like a very noisy lot of unreal shouting, ‘a mere tempestuous debate’. I love the  putting together of ‘tempestuous’ (which grows out of the line before, ‘waves and wind’), with ‘debate’  – just talk, showy-off talk, bluster. Parts of life feel like this. But look at Marilynne Robinson in the picture above – feel the quiet?

Real life, as opposed to this  false banging-about stuff is both calm and permanent:

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

The tone is suddenly steadied, as if we have been translated into a different key, the key of G, full and happy and  complete. But soon I am mollified again:

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

Agh! Time’s up  – have to leave this here until tomorrow.

Look Up!

Big Dipper.jpgToday a poem that is new to me, by William Habington, a poet I’ve never read.

I chose it from the OBEV (Gardner) because I am trying to find poems in the anthology which are new to me and which offer me something I’ve ignored or passed over quickly in the past. I’m not finding many of them, perhaps not surprisingly, as I have been using the book for, gosh,  nearly forty years. Most of the poems that have something  for me have called out to me by now.

This one – possibly the Latin title has put me off,  possibly the fact that I’ve never heard of Sir William. Not proud of that, but think it is a factor.

But today those pushaways were outweighed by the fact that last night was a surprisingly clear night, and when I came home it was extremely dark and I could see many stars. I was moved by the sight of them, and exhilarated. I don’t know if it was because I haven’t noticed the stars for a while but I suddenly found myself thinking, (excuse my inner voice) ‘dear stars! I’ve always loved you, the heavens, the universe…’ That thought – a kind of prayer of thanks? – took a fraction of a second then I put the key in the door and got on with getting home.

Yet it was a strong experience despite its short time-frame and, now I see, still in me when I opened the book this morning. I got past the title, and read  the opening line,  was  attracted, and read on.

(Getting past the title: I had to look it up.  ‘Nox nocti indicat Scientiam’ (‘Night after night they display knowledge’) The title is taken from Psalm 19 – the Vulgate, Catholic version which the King James version translates as ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ If you know Haydn’s Creation, it’s that.)

When I survey the bright
Celestial sphere;
So rich with jewels hung, that Night
Doth like an Ethiop bride appear:

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

For the bright firmament
Shoots forth no flame
So silent, but is eloquent
In speaking the Creator’s name.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

That from the farthest North,
Some nation may,
Yet undiscover’d, issue forth,
And o’er his new-got conquest sway:

Some nation yet shut in
With hills of ice
May be let out to scourge his sin,
Till they shall equal him in vice.

And then they likewise shall
Their ruin have;
For as yourselves your empires fall,
And every kingdom hath a grave.

Thus those celestial fires,
Though seeming mute,
The fallacy of our desires
And all the pride of life confute:–

For they have watch’d since first
The World had birth:
And found sin in itself accurst,
And nothing permanent on Earth

Looking at it again as I write, I see it wasn’t the first line but the second stanza that drew me in;

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

That’s exactly what happened to me on the path last night when I looked up. Somewhere in the back of my mind is something George Saunders said when I saw him reading and talking at Liverpool University the night before last. He spoke about being brought up as a working class Catholic on the south side of Chicago, and how Catholicism – though he had turned away from it in later life – had created a space inside him – a place for mystery. Childhood religion didn’t do that for me much – the Catholicism I experienced was more to do with unkind discipline than mystery and wonder. But later in my life, in my twenties and thirties and onwards from there, religious poetry  did create such a space in me.

When I read ‘the Almighty ‘ and ‘Creator’ the words go into that space for mystery.

I accept that for Habington they mean something about purposiveness and control or consciousness (God as the deliberate maker). It doesn’t matter  that I don’t feel this, don’t believe it. I don’t seem at odds with the words or the concept. Actually, I nearly feel it to be true. Just not quite. So when I read ‘the Almighty’ I translate it as ‘mystery’ and when I read ‘Creator’ I translate it into ‘force or energy or power’. the differences feel superficial. I know what he is talking about, I saw it with my own eyes when I looked up last night.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

I do not really have language for what I learn at such a moment, but I do have the actual experience. At the point of staring at the stars  I am ‘heavenly knowledge’ learning.

Language helps, does it? I think of myself doing some other thing which is instinctive and experiential – cooking let’s say. I can do it without language. But with language I can share the experience with another person. That makes me think that the fact that I don’t have religious language myself doesn’t matter, so long as I can, for the purpose of communication, learn Habington’s, or Milton’s, or Dante’s or T.S.Eliot’s. Or George Saunders.

What was mildly surprising in the poem was its deliberate turning away from worldliness, from power and politics. Habington lived through the English civil war, was a Catholic at a time of Catholic persecution, family members were executed.  Politics and power were real and terrible forces. Yet he looks up at the stars and sees it all as not much, as the stuff of a ‘moment’;

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

Habington’s stars tell him, in a way that feels helpful to him; ‘And nothing permanent on Earth’

At a time of turmoil and uncertainty, the glance up, the feelings of the size and mystery of it all, our smallness here below. I recognise my experience in his poem, and thank him for  it.

A few more daffodils & the ‘d’ word

C6UBW9zWgAA6Mv8.jpgphoto from @liverpoolparks

Robert Herrick ‘To Daffodils’

I love Robert Herrick.  I love ‘To Anthea, who may command him anything’ and I love ‘So Good Luck Came’, ‘To The virgins to Make Much of Time’, ‘Corinna’s Gone a-Maying’ – we’ll come to that in May – and many, many others. What do I love? Herrick’s brilliantly balanced between loving this world and knowing how short a date it has.

But his poem ‘To Daffodils’ I have passed by many times, not really noticing it, not reading it, because I’d glance-read it and assumed I’d got it. After all, it is very short. But today, I’m stopping to read.

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

 

On Saturday my friend Angie (A Little Aloud Angie, yes) told me the daffodils planted along the roadside and in tubs in Hoylake (the next little town along from us) were spectacular and  that it was worth going to Hoylake just to see them. That evening we were going to the pictures (don’t ask) and I drove  a roundabout route, via Hoylake, to see them. They were magnificent, fluttering, dancing, yes like stars, and seemingly never-ending. Well done, Hoylake!

We were nearly late for the film but I wanted to take Angie’s advice because I knew I next time I tried to look they’d be gone. Like almost everything the nature, they do come and go very quickly. This is a thing you know more intensely as you get older because time speeds up as years pass. Does anyone remember that moving interview between Melvin Bragg and the dying Denis Potter, in which Mr Potter speaks of the joy of still being alive and being able to see this year’s blossom, ‘the blossomest blossom ever’?

Well that’s what Robert Herrick is talking about. ‘We weep to see/you haste away so soon’ because we see our own hastening mirrored in yours. ‘Time’s ah running out’, as Captain Beefheart says.  Interesting that Herrick repeats the verb ‘haste’ in the day’s ‘hasting’ – as if everything now were moving at a tremendous time speed.

Let’s get to the end, he’s saying, then we’ll go. ‘We’ll go with you along.’ There’s an implication of being made to go along? of being unwilling?  Let’s get to the end of the day, then we’ll go. But what is the end of the day for a human? ‘Stay, stay,’ the poet cries, trying to  slow time down. In the first stanza, I know Herrick is really talking about himself (and me) but he covers it with daffodils as if it might only be about the passing of a flower’s quick life.

But the second stanza takes away any pretence.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We, daffodils, all, any material thing has short time, short spring, has growth heading to decay.  ‘We die’, says Herrick  boldly, baldly, giving the thought the whole short line. what I was surprised by was not that, but ‘Ne’er to be found again.’ No  rising on the last day, no  after life. Or if there is, not relevant here.  Though, now I look back, he mentions ‘praying together’ in the first stanza. Still, it’s this life he’s mourning here.
This morning as I was reading, I thought, I want to get ready to die (no, I’m not dying, any more than I have been, as far as I know. All’s well.). I just have a sense that I want to get ready to do it. I want to make it part of my life. Don’t want to be taken by surprise, unable to do it well. Then I saw the poem.
A poem like this is a tiny practice for dying. And thus also for living.
And a timely reminder: go and see the daffodils. Go now. Do not waste any more time, love it all, enjoy it all: daffodils, Anthea, Herrick,  Hoylake, Dear Friends. Oh, happy day, we’re still here and so are the daffodils.

More Marvelling

So back to Marvell in The Garden. Where had I got to? Ah, yes…drunkenly falling down laughing. ‘Stumbling on melons as I pass, / Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.’

I thought while I was walking this morning that Marvell’s fall in the poem must be related to the fall in that other garden – the Garden of Eden, which  I know about through Paradise Lost, and behind that, through Genesis. When Adam and Eve  eat of the fruit in Book 9 of Paradise Lost they do get drunk, though there drunkenness seems less innocent than Marvell’s – maybe because there are two of them, and they start fighting.  But here, in Marvell’s garden, once he’s fallen,  he seems to go into a kind of trance, more like an opium-dream than a drunken passing out:

 Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

This is as impenetrable as anything I’ve read so far! I don’t understand the first two lines:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;

You fall over, and your mind withdraws from (external) pleasure into its own (internal) happiness? You forget, or lose consciousness of,  the melons and flowers and the grass and everything goes…as you become one with everything? Your mind even as this world dissolves, creates new ‘worlds and other seas’. As if there is a whole other dimension inside us. Wonderful that the word he arrives at is ‘annihilating’ (reduce to nothing). Nothing but ‘green’. Then one of the most memorable  lines in English poetry : ‘annihilating all that’s made/ to a green thought in a green shade.’ Drenched in  garden, in green, converted to it. It.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Things are noticed in detail (the fountain’s sliding foot, the moss at the base of the tree) as the soul becomes part of the garden and sings. It’s a gorgeous, non-human, out-of-time experience. I think I have had that experience a little bit, sometimes in my garden or out walking. You go elsewhere.

But then Marvell comes back, man-like, remembering Eden before Eve!

Such was that happy garden-state,

While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

Oddly narky, this stanza seems – as if others, particularly one’s beloved  – can really interfere and mess things up and I suppose that this kind of mystical communing with universe is a solitary experience. If we were only soul we’d be like this all time, but we are not!  We are physical, sexual, beings and need, (see how he play’s on ‘helpmate’, ‘help-meet’), someone else.

But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:

I feel the worldly disappointed tone is coming from the sense that it would have been better to be alone:

Two paradises ’twere in one

To live in paradise alone.

Why two? Because you had paradise and you had it alone! I just don’t know if I’ve got the tone right here. Everything seems to shift around quickly. Ok, so I come back to consciousness realising that I am not just a lone spirit/consciousness, I am never going to be completely alone while human (think that is implied in the last two lines above) but then Marvell seems to jump back into his real body in real time –  here again now in the real garden, made by a human:

How well the skillful gard’ner drew

Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

I feel sort of stuck so I go back to read the whole poem again, and that helps, gives a better rhythm to the thinking. It is about solitude, being alone, being gone out of oneself and then coming back. Last verse seems to be about a made-of-plants sundial  – you can’t measure the time you’ve been as it were out of your mind except in this way, by the flowers and plants  themselves.

Loved reading this, this last few days and it has made me long for the experience of being out in the green garden. To which ‘I must arise and  go now..’ as Yeats said.