Emerson, my dear dog’s long-done death & some deep family utterances

Winter Jasmine climbing overthe courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm.JPG
Winter Jasmine climbing over the courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm            16 January 2018

Yesterday I started reading ‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I only read the first two lines. Here it is;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

I was thinking about the  violence of the words ‘slayer’, ‘slays’ and ‘slain’.  The poem makes death seem a vile and brutal battering and this morning, as I reread what I’d written yesterday, I thought that however a death happens,  it usually feels a brutal psychological experience to those who witness it.  Is that why Emerson has gone for that violent word?

Thinking about when my dog, Davy, died, oh, it’s years ago now. He was at the natural end of  his life and had  lost his sight and then had a stroke. He was dying and I knew it, and surely he did too, one beautiful summer morning when the garden was warm and sunny at 6.30am, and he lay on the lawn along the edge of a flowerbed, just as he had always lain along the edge of things,  the edge of the sofa, the edge of the bottom stair, the edge of the  Esse cooker. His poor dying body, panting slightly,  made a lovely golden shape, because he was a dog with great shapes, and everything about his physicality was beautiful.  I lay beside him knowing that soon it would be over and the time was gentle and peaceable, and full of love. There couldn’t have been a better goodbye.

Yet, there’s a violence to it.  In the weeks following his death he haunted me. His head,  just at the height your hand is when you stand there wanting something golden to stroke, seemed to be close to my hand.  His poor sideways sightless walk came back to me and made me cry when driving or looking for tomatoes in the supermarket. I missed him and it hurt.  Slayer, slay, slain.

Those elements of violence seem in every death because they cut us off from our time-bound, our mortal, relationships. Then the cuts hurt, because we love and because we know we are mortal.

But the second big word in the opening two lines is ‘think’. Could it be  that the sense of violence, of slog, of battery, is to do with the way we think of it? After all, ‘the mind is its own place and can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n’.  Could I have thought differently about my loss?

Many years before, our little son stood at the grave we had dug in the woods for our first family dog, Chia, and as we laid her, wrapped in a blanket, into the grave, he raised his arms in an embracing-the-universe-gesture and said, ‘Chia, you are gone, into earth, into heaven.’  That made us laugh and was a wonderful comfort in its unexpected and appropriate gravity. We buried/planted her beneath a tiny sapling.  Years before that my little daughter had written a poem about Chia, then a pup:

Little Chia,
Little loving Chia,
I’ll always remember you
When you’re gone.

The last line seemed to have  adult brutality – facing it! always facing it! – but now I concentrate on what turned out to be true; ‘I’ll always remember you when you’re gone.’ But where has Chia ‘gone’?  Into Earth? Into Heaven? Yet she’s in our brains, as memory, in our hearts. Is that a place? In our brains she has a physical being, in the energy of the  firing neurons. Is she with us? Odd the sensation of a Welsh great (or great-great) Grandmother, Niyne, whom I never met and only knew through my grandfather, Sid Smith, whose mother or grandmother she was, so powerful in his mind years after her death that she was part of  my childhood and is, even now, in my mind.

What is that passing on of memory, of being?

To remember the text:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

There’s one way of thinking – slayer, slays, slain, slain. And there is another. ‘I keep, and pass, and turn again.’ Who is the ‘I’ here, then?

Going to reread the whole poem;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Is there another, let’s call it a dimension, in which there is no such thing as slayer, no slay, no slain? In which whatever it (‘I’ in the poem) simply keeps moving?

Those of us living in the world of difference between life and death do not know, or forget

the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

I’m struck by ‘keep’, ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ as the actions of this force or being. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, perhaps  ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ are not the actions of the force but of those who think… so it would read,

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep,

and they pass (me, my ways, by) and they turn again.

I think that makes more sense.

Time to stop. Still in the first stanza, but it’s not a race, is it? It’s a reading meditation.

See Davy running on Caldy Hill at the bottom of the page,  here. And here’s a poem I wrote about him (see, the deep family likeness will come out) when he was a young dog:

Dog Geometry

On a lead he’ll bisect my line with an obtuse angle.
When he sets his haunches down in mudpond
he becomes the perfect long-backed isosceles.

Wheeling like the stars dog feels joy describing
gigantic circles bending low into the arcs
he draws gold across the sodden field.

Looking Westward, to the East: Brahma, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

swim
Remember there was summer? Montenegro 2017

Thinking back to the summer – writing here in the dark at 6.30am that seems a lifetime ago! – when I was reading Emerson (just had a look back at those posts and seem to have forgotten the content of them completely.  They might have been written by someone else. Oh dear. But I  felt excited reading the quotations from Emerson, just as I must have done the first time round.) I don’t know why I didn’t think to look at his poetry but I didn’t. This morning when looking for a short poem to read (short because I need to leave the house early today), I found ‘Brahma’ in  All The Days of My Life, an anthology I’d have said I knew inside out. Yet this is a poem (I believe, but see above, my memory is not good) I have never read before.

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Here’s a poem in the voice of Brahma, a  Hindu god about whom I know very little. I looked  him up and found he is a creator god…I wondered how Ralph Waldo Emerson knew about Brahma and thought, I’m going to read a biography of Emerson.  I wonder what Emerson knows of Brahma? I don’t know who or what the ‘red slayer’ is – something from Indian culture I don’t know about? Blood? American Indians? These thoughts are uncomfortable, (the not knowing), and jostle in my mind as I try to get into the poem. I have to do what I always have to do with not knowing and tell myself, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the red slayer is – just say, it is something that kills.

In the opening two lines the root ‘slay’ appears: slayer, slays, slain, slain. Violent death is on Emerson’s mind. ‘Slay’ means to kill with a weapon, and  is connected to slog – it’s a violent battering.

But in those opening lines full of violence and death we  have only two other elements – the connective tissues of syntax and pronouns (if, he, or) and the  twice repeated verb ‘think’.

The poem is setting up a massive opposition between what we think about death  (even when it is based on the bloody and battered evidence at our feet) and what actually is – which comes in the next two lines:

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

But 7.00am – time to go. More tomorrow.

 

Jab! Jab! Punch! Shakespeare Boxing and Taking It On The Chin

ivyand shakespeare.JPG
Shakespeare, almost overcome by ivy, 13 September

Yes, it is September, but this morning as I write  it might be November or February.  High winds and rain lashing the windows as if we were at sea, and it is cold.

But it is not winter yet: only the beginning of autumn. Yesterday evening I  was looking at the ivy in the back garden and realised that the summer’s growth had almost overwhelmed  Shakespeare, who resides in a corner by the shed, with a bird’s nest on his right shoulder.

Seeing him there made me think of reading a Shakespeare sonnet, which isn’t something I always want to do. Like mackerel, the sonnets  have a peculiar flavour,  and aren’t always what I fancy, though when I read them/am given mackerel I  enjoy them more than I think I will.  And  I’ve really enjoyed a couple of Saturday Dayschools, where we read  a bunch of the sonnets and maybe that is something to  think of again – a sort of mackerel baked whole with ginger,soy and spring onions.

Anyhow, this morning I thought, yes, I’ll read some of them, and so I have, though with an under-thought, which I’ve only just formulated, which was : perhaps I really want to read a Shakespeare play?  Aha. Don’t know if I could do that here? If the Sonnets are mackerel, what are the plays ? Feasts, banquets, weeks away in  other lands… The plays seem the right  vehicle for Shakespeare’s mind. Of course the Sonnets are his mind, too, but this sort of intimacy  doesn’t seem the place  he inhabits best.  At his fullest, he needs players, playing, inside and out. Which isn’t to say that the Sonnets aren’t works of genius in their own right.  Oh, leave that mackerel analogy! It’s as if Shakespeare was a great athlete and might  box or play rugby and win silver or gold at both.  Here he is boxing:

SONNET LXIV (44)

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!

Would you take it to your Shared Reading group? I would.

How does a novice sonnet-reader get into this? What’s the emotional punch here?  Ouch  – ‘time will come and take my love away’. Everything  else is bobbing and weaving, is jab, jab, jab.

For beginners  with sonnets the rule is read it all, then  read it in chunks. The chunks here mostly fall into two lines or four lines, marked by the semicolons and colons, and by the repetition of the word ‘when’  as the first word. Let’s take it a bit at a time:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

Those repeated ‘when’s’ become something but at the first one we don’t know that yet. Is it just me, or does ‘when’ imply a pattern of thought: when this, then that.  When I go the shop (then) I buy things.  but what we get here is a long list of  whens with no ‘then’ outcome until the end of the poem. So we have to read and wait. The waiting is  marked by the semicolon.

‘When I have seen’ is also – is it?  – plural?  Has it happened many times in the past? I have seen is certainly a completed action in the past. I’m not sure what it is  here in the grammar that makes me think it is plural. Seen over and over.

You might ask, why is it ‘Time’s fell hand ‘? I look up ‘fell’ in the Etymological dictionary. Fell is causes to fall, is cruel. I looked at ‘defaced’ and think of vandalism, wanton damage. It’s random and cruel, remorseless and careless – that’s Time.  And what does Time deface?

The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

I am thinking of graveyards, of memorials, perhaps because of ‘buried age’. The rich proud cost – is that stuff – masonry, marble tombs, oak caskets. Rich is one thing, proud another. This line is stuffed full of meanings – this is Shakespeare’s brain, floating like a butterfly, jab, jab, jab. You pay your money – jab! You create some monument that  expresses your self-pride – jab! You know what? – It gets covered in cobwebs and ivy  – jab! Because you  are dead – jab!  Because you are ancient, in the past, over, done – jab!

He’s bouncing around on his toes.

More tomorrow.

 

Overnight Thoughts, Knitting Up Those Raveled Sleeves and Doing My Expenses, Late.

expenses.JPG

‘Sleep,’ says Macbeth, who hasn’t had any,  ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care.’

I love overnight thoughts and the fact that my brain keeps trying even when I go to sleep. It’s as if everything does not depend on consciousness, a great relief when you haven’t got or can’t summon enough of that vital commodity to deal with all the things you’ve got to sort out.

This morning I woke up with some lines of George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ playing in my mind. I’ve written about that poem before  (search George Herbert and you’ll find it) but here it is again today.  Great poems come back and prove useful over and over.

It’s a religious poem and must come with my usual caveat: I’m not a Christian and have to translate what George Herbert is able to think as a Christian into something that makes sense to me. I borrow his language and try to understand my own situation through it.

Let’s read it quickly through:

Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.
         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav’n espy.
         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
         Will not grow bright and clean.
         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.
         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.

Why did I wake with the following lines quietly but insistently  reciting themselves  in my mind?

Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.

I had been dreaming, or perhaps better to say, unconsciously thinking, about some work problems and my brain was offering me ‘The Elixir’ as a solution.  It was saying  ‘You already know this! Think on!’

I say ‘problems’ but these weren’t the gut-wrenching problems of leadership common to every charity (and non-charity?) CEO. For me those problems,  real problems, the worst, the 2.47 a.m. and I’m wide awake problems, always involve people and their individual sensibilities.  Other kinds of worries sometimes wake me up but  it is the people problems that make me sweat. I think this  is connected to what William Stafford is talking about in his poem ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ (which you’ll find here) when he speaks of  ‘the horrible errors of childhood’

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

When I’m reading ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ with other people , this stanza is always a tricky one. You need a lot of trust to be willing to go into ‘the horrible errors of childhood/storming out to play through the broken dyke.’

Stafford is talking about people trying to make a new pattern in the world, people following each other or  sticking together, trying to get somewhere together. Everything depends on trust.  And this stanza about the ‘horrible errors of childhood’ is a stanza about moments when our trusting fails.

‘Betrayal’, which is a big thing, starts small,  a private, even secret thought, ‘ in the mind’. No one would even know what you were thinking.  But that small betrayal results in a physical action in the world: ‘a shrug’, which doesn’t at first seem much.

You think something bad about someone (which is how I take the word ‘betrayal’ – but we might argue about that) and you stop bothering. You let it go. Some things can’t be fixed. That shrug doesn’t seem much, and might even be sensible.

But it is the shrug that  ‘lets the fragile sequence break’ and suddenly all hell is let loose.

We become as children, in dangerous adult bodies/lives. To have the emotional needs of unhappy children, but to have them in adult lives, with adult powers of language and memory and behaviour and power, is a terrible thing. We become a raging flood, breaking the dam, the dyke, out of control.

Working on problems like that, the work of the priest or psychotherapist, is hard in a workplace where we don’t have time to slowly unravel  reasons and face them in our own time. We have to decide to do something today, now.

Poetry can help at work. You don’t need hours, you need a couple of lines. You need a different feeling round a table. You may only need one thought.

None of that was my problem last night, however. I didn’t wake up sweating. I slept through and woke with ‘The Elixir’ in my mind.

The problems of  last night are creative problems about trying to make Calderstones a place where the horrible errors of childhood are not storming around too much and where all our tasks, from picking up litter to serving soup, from reading the poems to reading the people, from filing our accounts with the Charities Commission to submitting expenses forms on time are all done as if they all mattered.

 A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.

The floor-sweeping, housekeeping, of filing my expenses on time saves the finance team trouble and that is as much a part of the vision of Calderstones as  good communication or fine literature or delicious soup.  Shrug  those small things off at your peril. Next thing, we’re all lost. ‘The Elixir’ came into my mind to tell me so.

Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.

 

 

Paradise Lost 3: What Caused That First Fall?

angnes on a wall
It’s natural to walk that line, isn’t it?

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that what I was interested in was what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

Paradise Lost is a poem written in a language that is foreign to me as a non-Christian, though  Christianity is a language of which I have a partial understanding. The poem’s subject matter, in the largest sense, is brokenness and the repair of  brokenness, and this is a  field of experience about which I  do know something. So, for me, reading Paradise Lost is like struggling to understand something personally important to me, spoken by someone I can’t properly understand.

Of course there is some help in the form of footnotes and so on.  Often, I find they don’t help very much, but I’m using the online edition offered by Dartmouth College which has good notes you might want to  turn to sometimes.

For beginners, one of the things to realise early on is that there are powerful rhythms, like tides, in the poem , and they help  me catch the meaning.  Often we’ll be reading sentences, and before that clauses, andd ofteimes individual words, but the large unit is what I call the paragraph  (though may be it is a stanza?)

What I’d do here is  read the whole paragraph through, to get a rough sense of what’s happening, then break it down into sentences, then build it back up again. So, let’s read it through and as you read, aim to breathe at the next bit of punctuation. last week we’d got as far as the second paragraph.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

Now I’m going to go slowly into the first sentence:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

It’s important to remember that Milton is talking to the ‘spirit’ he wants to inspire him. So when he says, ‘Say first, for Heave’n hides nothing from thy view’, the pronoun, ‘thy’ refers to the Holy Spirit. This spirit, one of the  three parts of the Christian God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is all-seeing, knows everything and is real, and really available to John Milton. I don’t have any sense that Milton doubts that this spirit will help him: Milton is the mouthpiece, his verse a vehicle for something which wants to  be spoken.

I slow it down a little more and look more  closely at the task with which Milton is calling for help. It’s not the spirit writing the poem, is it? It’s  Milton – he has asked this first question, he has chosen the order. The spirit knows and sees everything, but does ‘everything’ have an order? Milton sets the question – picks a starting place –  and the spirit answers. It is humans who need chronology, narrative, a beginning:

                                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]

The world is broken, humans are broken, yet in Milton’s universe we are creations of a perfect God. How can there be mess and  breakage in a universe created by a perfect God?  Go back down the human generations, each set of human beings messed up by the ones that came before and eventually we get to our ‘Grand Parents’, Adam and Eve.  There they were, more close to God than any subsequent generation, ‘Favour’d of Heav’n so highly’ , and yet they  fell off. How come? Let’s start there, Milton thinks.

Well, they were ‘favoured of heaven’, but they were also constrained;

                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

Apart from that one restraint, they were Lords of the World.  You can put the emphasis there, Lords of the World. Or you can  put it on the prior clause, ‘ and transgress his Will
For one restraint’.

As a human, I recognise this inability to accept restrain imposed by an external force.

Would you accept it ? To be a lord of the world? You think you might,  or you know you wouldn’t, depending on how rebellious or acquiescent you are, and perhaps also depending on what might be gained.  But whatever each of us reading might individually think, we  probably do recognise as deeply human the inability to accept restraint.

I’m thinking of my grandchildren – each at some each catching your eye while they do the thing you’ve told them not to do. ‘Shall I do this?’ the toddler glance asks, as they do it. And if I do it, as I am, what will you do? Is it a real restraint or can I break it? Is this the edge of the world or just you, making up a law?

But Milton seems to think that this desire to question the boundary is in itself a fall and  in a sense is a form of breakage:

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?

I looked up the verb ‘seduce’ in the etymological dictionary.

1520s, “to persuade a vassal, etc., to desert his allegiance or service,” from Latin seducere “lead away, lead astray,” from se- “aside, away” (see secret (n.)) + ducere “to lead,” from PIE root *deuk- “to lead.” Sexual sense, now the prevailing one, is attested from 1550s and apparently was not in Latin. Originally “entice (a woman) to a surrender of chastity.” Related: Seducedseducing.

Replaced Middle English seduisen (late 15c.), from Middle French séduire “seduce,” from Old French suduire “to corrupt, seduce,” from Latin subducere“draw away, withdraw, remove” (see subduce).

If God was a whole, the entirety of creation a Godly whole, how could our Grand Parents have fallen?  Some other element must have entered which could cause this state of partition, drawing Adam and Eve aside and away from the natural and right order of things.  That element, for Milton, is  ‘the infernal serpent’. And we will come to him next week.

The big question I am left with this week is: is bad part of God as well as good? If the whole thing, everything , is the creation, the being, the actual manifestation of God… then surely whatever  causes the leading astray, the corruption, is part of God too? We’ll come to this when we look at the  ways in which Satan turned from God.

But:  if bad is part of what always is,  is what always is ‘God’.

More next week.

 

Denise Levertov: ‘Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else’

hydrangea
Hydragea, rose-blue, front garden, 29 August

Yesterday I visited the Liverpool Studio of Hugh Miller, an artist in wood. It’s a great experience to meet someone who loves what they do, whatever the subject matter is, but it is extraordinary when the thing done is highly skilled,  requiring a considered and experienced response to a series of  complex problems.  Making in wood poses such problems – grain, density, movement, water content, the control of the cutting implement.

Everything Hugh makes is made by hand and by thinking.

It’s an extraordinary process. I’m no artist in any dimension but as Hugh spoke about the demands of his work, I remembered things I had made – pretty rough and ready, and botched quite often, but nonetheless sometimes demanding that sort of series of decisions, even when my hand was not good enough to execute the action called for my by what my eye.

I’ve made twenty or more patchwork quilts in the past twenty-five years,  and I’ve made my garden (and lost it to  neglect and made bits of it again) and I’ve cooked sometimes complex meals. These things are made by hand and eye and by what you learn from masters – from books, mostly, in my case. They are ordinary ways in which a non-artist, non-craftswoman, may come near what may be the experience of  art-making.  It is like play, serious play, for grown-ups. And the grown-up element is the experience, the gathering of past learning into a feel, an instinct for the thing. That needs to go like this.

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The last quilt I made, Frances and Drummond’s Wedding Quilt, during construction.

Some of Hugh’s work had a beautiful  weave-like feel, like rough hessian, other parts of the same wood, (he works in English Elm, mostly) were finished like silk. I imagined the delight of concentrating on achieving those finishes of knowing how to do it mentally but also having taught your hand to achieve the necessary changes to reality.

Coffee-Scoop-1.The-Coffee-Ceremony-by-Hugh-Miller.--312x240

The line of  one of the smallest items he had to show us, a coffee scoop, its combination of metal wire and wood, the delightful angle of the thing as it sat, waiting ceremonially to scoop, was a thing of beauty.

The visit to Hugh’s studio came unexpectedly into my mind this morning as I sat down to read Denise Levertov. Her poems are made, I feel, almost wrestled, wrangled, into shape.  Are all poems  made like that? In my experience yes, but it’s hard to imagine Milton wrestling Paradise Lost into being.  The Thomas Hardy I was reading yesterday? It may be so, but there’s what Hopkins calls in a hawk,  the achieve of, the mastery of the thing that sometimes prevents you appreciating what in wood  would be the chisel marks.  Thinking of Hugh’s work – some parts of the wood were so finished that you could not easily tell they had been ‘finished’ by a human hand. The silk of table top seemed a god-given. But if you saw Hugh working – you’d see a man in mask against the dust, sanding  the hell out of it. In the carved work  you can see the  effect of the blade – you know  someone has done it.

Language is a tough medium for making – so ordinary, so every day, and yet poets do the most extraordinary things with it. This poem arrested me – partly because it’s title, a recognisable flow in Denise Levertov’s grain – points me both at and away from everyday.

I read this poem in ignorance – I do not know what made her write it, or what raw materials she found to make it from. I only know what is here.  It’s like walking into Hugh’s studio and seeing one of those extraordinary chairs when he is not present to tell you about it. I walk around the chair, I let my fingers understand it.

Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else

Sweet procession, rose-blue,
and all them bells.

Bandstand red, the eyes
at treetop level seeing it. ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

The people from an open window
the eyes
seeing it!     Daytime!      Or twilight!

Sweet procession, rose-blue.
If we’re here let’s be here now.

And the train whistle? who
invented that? Lonesome man, wanted the trains
to speak for him.

I don’t know what it is a sweet procession of –  clouds, perhaps, or people down below or flowers.  ‘Sweet’ seems to make it smaller – not a grand procession, just something ordinarily  lovely. Rose-blue is a good colour, like  end of summer hydrangeas. Because of the bells in the second line, I think I’m looking out, through Denise’s words, at air, at clouds. ‘And all them bells’  is like someone speaking in amazement. Are we looking at them – like looking over rooftop Florence? Or are we hearing them? What an amazing Sunday morning clatter! Are we actually ‘somewhere else’?

My eyes look over the scene and I see ‘Bandstand red’.  Is it a colour, like pillarbox red, my eye floating over green attracted to that power of colour? Am I looking over something like Central Park? ‘The eyes/at treetop level seeing it’. Is it a bandstand or only a patch of red? and while I’m making it all out, the question:

 ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

I do not know whose question this is, only that Levertov has carved it into the poem and now I can only read it and  wonder. Feels like a conversation going on in a room while I  look out over the park. I wonder if that looking out, at treetop level, makes you have that kind of thought? Things might look different from up here, but would you know that if you were on the ground? Do we, are Nietszche said, ‘become what we are’? Are we fixed, or are we made?

‘Befalls’ is a big word, perhaps frightening. Does stuff just drop on us, as if from a height? Denise puts the word into my mind and all I can do is let it reverberate.

The people from an open window
the eyes
seeing it!      Daytime!      Or twilight!

I am suddenly thinking:  are these people are looking out from the open window or am I seeing them?  ‘The eyes’ – whose eyes, mine, opening now?  Those people up there? Those people down there? But it is the looking that counts, ‘seeing it!  Three exclamation marks in one line!!!

Alsoi I notice those lovely gaps in the line before ‘Daytime!’,  before ‘Or twilight!’

I read it all again, from the beginning,  and feel I am looking at people now from a new angle, from up here, at treetop level and  seeing the world fresh  whatever time it is,  ‘Daytime!     Or twilight!’ From those exclamations and pauses, those gaps, a further realisation of what it is comes, look again:

Sweet procession, rose-blue.
If we’re here let’s be here now.

Now it seems as if the poem takes place in a  moment, a looking from a window and it is made from a rush of feeling about what everything is: ‘sweet procession’  – is it the whole of life, sky, cloud and us watching: ‘ if we’re here let’s be here now.’  Funny to start that thought with an ‘if’, as we might not be here at all?  But I look back at the title,  ‘Seems Like We Might Be Somewhere Else’.

Those words give me an odd dislocating feeling, as does the not being able to know what the sweet procession is, what is rose-blue (apart from the colour, rose-blue) as do ‘all them bells’. But if we are here, let’s be here now. Feels like a positive embrace of this and all moments, a realisation of how to live.

Then comes that sad wail of the train whistle. It’s in the poem because it came to Denise, either in reality or in mind, and suddenly, are we here now? Have we gone somewhere else? Where does that thought, emotion, raised by the sound of the train whistle, come from?  Comes from ‘Lonesome man, wanted the trains/to speak for him.’

The poem is almost ecstatic, and yet studded with three big thoughts which I need to continue to think over – are we what befalls us, be here now and wanting the trains to speak – but I’m way over time, unfortunately.

”Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961,1979 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

The Altered All, Thomas Hardy, The Going

two flowers
Dahlia and Clematis on the back step, 28August

Last week I was reading, very slowly, Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Going’. Search ‘Hardy’ for previous blog entries. I hadn’t finished and so here it is, and if you are joining as a new reader, give it a good slow read aloud, and actually, if you are coming back, do that too, because we want to get the poem live in our minds, not leave it dead in our memory:

The Going

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye,
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

Well, well!  All’s past amend,
Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing-
Not even I—would undo me so!

I’d got to the point where I was just about to start reading stanza 4.

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

This stanza, joy-filled, excited, rises from the misery of the previous, when the ‘blankness’ of her absence overwhelms Hardy. Suddenly, as he turns from the empty view,  here she is in the beginning of their time together. The power of this woman, on horseback, musing and eyeing him, feels a delight to him. The stanza is  full of  sexual energy and feels drenched in light. I don’t know where I get that from, except perhaps those ‘red-veined rocks far west’. Life seems an unknown, and full of possibility, full of feeling. It feels fast, it’s moving, that unrolling – a like a carpet, a bolt of cloth? – slightly out of control? But all this heat and energy disappears as Hardy comes back to the present with another question – another why – for her. Or is he now speaking only to himself?

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

I wonder how long that ‘ latterly’ has lasted.  The period seems connected to the death of their relationship. They have lived though a period when that excitement and energy  was ‘long dead’. They did not even speak. They did not remember ‘those days long dead’.

Now he cannot forget her, dead.

But he doesn’t say ‘dead’, he says ‘vanishing’ as if even know he cannot bear to remember the truth of her going. She is dead, in reality, now, but he can only use the word ‘dead’ for the long-ago days when they were together.  That person who dies, who vanished… Was that her?  He can imagine a different relation suddenly, where they could speak to one another. Instead of ‘Why, then, latterly did we not speak’ he imagines a kindly warmth between them that might have helped to take them back:

                 We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

But that did not happen. She did not speak and neither did he. They lost their chances. Now she has gone, and  the great going has altered ‘all’. When we first read that word ‘all’ in stanza 2, we didn’t know its import. We didn’t know what ‘all’ contained.  Now we know it was the possibility of potential change that was lost, and in a sense, his future. Has her death killed him?

Well, well!  All’s past amend,
Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing-
Not even I—would undo me so!

He turns away from her, her absence, his memory of her. That ‘well, well’ is like a man talking to himself, turning back to the acceptance of reality. And what he has to accept is that ‘all’s past amend/Unchangeable’. Death, as  Shakespeare said, closes all:  the same ‘all’ we saw in stanza 2: everything that might have happened  or  everything that might have changed if life had continued. Now ‘all’ is unchangeable.

Then we come to these three most striking words: ‘it must go.’

This is a sentence, and yet it seems to have almost no constituent parts – a subject, ‘it’: but what is ‘it’? and a verb, ‘must go’ and  there’s no object.

Does he mean the past?

Does he mean the chance of change?

Does he mean the lost possibility of  ‘we might have said’?

The verb is ‘go’ and the poem is called  ‘The Going’, and much of it has been about her going without notice, so does he mean his relationship to her?  Why ‘it’?  I’m wondering if  ‘it’ could ‘it’ refer to ‘all’?

I do not know if there is a line, a half line, with so much desolation in it anywhere. We have reached  the nub of his pain:

I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . .

This extraordinary image of this man –  like a weight suspended in water –  drowning – but like something that should be horizontal, should be dead, sums up his state of being. He is wrong. He is all wrong.  And now he turns once more to her:

 O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing-
Not even I—would undo me so!

Is that ‘you could know not’  forgiving? is it crying, ‘o’. Is it taking the initial sense blame away from her for ‘fleeing’ – see how the verb of her going has changed. Now it seems she had something to run away from – him.

Even he, the person who now suffers  this guilt and loss, could not imagine that he would be so undone by her going. Her going has altered ‘all’. but there’s only him left to be altered. He feels the pain of change after the event. Count the number of times he says  ‘why’ in this poem. Why. Why. Why. The first two whys are for her – why did you give no hint, why do you make me leave.

The third is addressed to both of them:

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

This was something they both might have done but neither did. And he is left with that burden of remorse.  Is Thomas Hardy avoiding the word ‘I’ ?

It comes in the last line, in a sightly hidden clause, ‘not even I’.  You couldn’t know, no one could, not even I. Know what ? That I would be altered by your going. That’s the altered all.  And he knows it.