Paradise Lost 18: Flag-Waving As An Antidote to Fear

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

You may have heard Ian Mackellen and others in a R4 adaptation  of Paradise Lost  by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts.  If not, find it here.  I haven’t listened yet but  like MSR’s poetry so am looking forward to hearing what he has done with this great poem.

What I am doing with it is reading it, a few lines at a time, often in a weekly instalments.

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 I was interested in 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’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, we’d got to the point where Satan was rousing his rebel army, with ‘semblance of worth, not substance’ and I’d been thinking about  mass psychology and how humans are so roused, by  loud empty noise from assertive types. As the standard is raised, those fallen angels all start jumping up, wanting to be in the band. Of course, I’m thinking of fascism and other flag waving. Could be any of us, getting up there, wanting to join.  Which makes me think about the responsibility to educate ourselves and each other and our children.

To get going today I’m reading this chunk, aloud, slow, and finding the rhythm by going for punctuation, not line endings. (There’s an ellipted -missed-out- pronoun, ‘he’ in the opening line here, after ‘strait’) :

Then strait commands that at the warlike sound
Of Trumpets loud and Clarions be upreard
His mighty Standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurld [ 535 ]
Th’ Imperial Ensign, which full high advanc’t
Shon like a Meteor streaming to the Wind
With Gemms and Golden lustre rich imblaz’d,
Seraphic arms and Trophies: all the while
Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds: [ 540 ]
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.

Hhm,  a piece of epic spectacle, rich with trumpets and flags to rouse emotion, which it does. The fallen angels assert their waking to action by a mighty shout and then :

All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air [ 545 ]
With Orient Colours waving: with them rose
A Forest huge of Spears: and thronging Helms
Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: Anon they move
In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood [ 550 ]
Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais’d
To hight of noblest temper Hero’s old
Arming to Battel, and in stead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

This is interesting – instead of rage, they are moved by ‘deliberate valour’. Which maybe undercuts my sense that this is emotional? But no, I don’t think so.  Unlike the Barbarian hordes, screaming out  of the northern mist,  raging, these are the ordered and choreographed ranks modern armies. Yet this careful and controlled movement is only allowed because of the emotion – we join in, we sublimate ourselves to the mass. And what kind of emotion is it? It is the fear of pain.

Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

It is the emotion of assertion against pain, against ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’. What an astonishing line of poetry, with those ‘ands’ repeating and repeating, as if you’d never be able to banish those feelings.and look where the emotive barbarian horde action has gone – into the word ‘ chase’!  Those massed ranks, moving in complete inhuman mechanistic motion are an emotional reaction, while they move stiffly, deliberate with their arms held high, are chasing ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’.

I see, among other horrors,  the Nazis and the Red Army, but does Milton see Oliver Cromwell’s army?

Thus they
Breathing united force with fixed thought [ 560 ]
Mov’d on in silence to soft Pipes that charm’d
Thir painful steps o’re the burnt soyle; and now
Advanc’t in view, they stand, a horrid Front
Of dreadful length and dazling Arms, in guise
Of Warriers old with order’d Spear and Shield, [ 565 ]
Awaiting what command thir mighty Chief
Had to impose: He through the armed Files
Darts his experienc’t eye, and soon traverse
The whole Battalion views, thir order due,
Thir visages and stature as of Gods, [ 570 ]
Thir number last he summs.

‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’ –  certainly Milton had the picture of a well-trained, mechanised army in mind. they become one obedient creature. Breathing as one.  Thinking as one. How do we know Milton does not admire this army?  The word ‘charm’d’.  They are actually suffering  foul and permanent burning here as they walk over the ground of hell, but they don’t know that, being ‘charm’d’.

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories: For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam’d with these
Could merit more then that small infantry [ 575 ]
Warr’d on by Cranes: though all the Giant brood
Of Phlegra with th’ Heroic Race were joyn’d
That fought at Theb’s and Ilium, on each side
Mixt with auxiliar Gods; and what resounds
In Fable or Romance of Uthers Son [ 580 ]
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights;
And all who since, Baptiz’d or Infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore [ 585 ]
When Charlemain with all his Peerage fell
By Fontarabbia.

Another list of things I don’t know about and could look up and might look up if I had but world enough and time. But I don’t. The Dartmouth edition has all the footnotes. But I’m just reading the main clause:

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength

Pride comes both before and after the fall. He can’t get away from it. Look at the clever human analysis: physical thing, heart, distended and  made strong, hardens.  It’s emotional.  Ouch. The rigidity of  pride. The glory of those flag-waving,  weapon parading marches. And while  I note that nothing in human history has matched this army, it’s the next bit I’m interested in. Tho’ am afraid will have to read this next week, as the garden, in sunlight, beckons.

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.


Gerorge Herbert: prepping like Joe Wicks, sweeping the floor for good.

calds 30 May
A long view in the Old English Garden at Calderstones 30 May

Continuing from yesterday….On Saturday I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading at the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. You can sign up for it here. We’ll be reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  I’m interested in seeing how ancient and modern languages for what we call ‘mental health’ or George Herbert called his ‘soul’, can fit together.

Today I’m continuing reading ‘The Elixir’  by George Herbert,

I started from the uncomfortable position of being someone who doesn’t have a religion, faced with trying to understand a message from someone who does.  I have to translate Herbert’s ‘God’ into something I can understand.

Yesterday Loubyjo commented, ‘True wisdom is a loss of misconceptions rather than an accumulation of knowledge do not hoard facts and call your self wise sages realise when they know enough !!’

I agree!

Think you were thinking Lou, give yourself a break ,Jane and don’t over think. But I want to think, or rest, or meditate, on a word. Realise that might make reading what I’m writing slow or dull, and I do feel some compulsion to try to move it along for the sake of readers, but really, I’m writing for myself, to deepen my own reading practice. Sometimes staying still in one word allows me to do exactly what you suggest, Lou, and ‘lose misconceptions’. They are always with me when I start reading, and the slow  thinking helps me  lose them.

I agree that knowledge is not wisdom, facts are not wisdom (see the post about footnotes). But understanding the words, understanding what they mean to me, doesn’t seem like ‘knowledge’ to me. All of which is to say – thanks for comment – no worries, and no need to say ‘sorry’ at all, always glad to hear from you – the frustration was more to do with running out of time yesterday.

But I add your thought into the mix: the discipline to do my hour’s practice and accept without frustration when time us up!

Back to the poem: for readers only joining today, here it is, ‘The Elixir’:

         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.

I had got, in my snail -like way, to the word ‘prepossest’ in line 7 and was about to think through the change of pronouns connected to that word. I think that  ‘Thee’  and ‘his’ refer to the same person (God) but am not sure.

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

There are three people in those four lines : George Herbert (understood though not named) , the beast and God. Only God could have the perfection, which is why I think ‘his’ refers to God. but if so there is an odd switch from Herbert talking directly to God (Thee) to talking about him (his perfection).

Various thoughts:

  • it’s a mistake, printing error etc and should read ‘Your perfection’
  • there’s something I don’t understand
  • his perfection refers to the beast.

I work through these possibilities and arrive back at the second explanation.  Is it s switch from talking directly to God – to the ideal – to being outside and seeing God/the ideal as something to achieve?

Bear with me – say I watch Dave our Chef at Calderstones cooking rice and I am with him, and talking to him, I’d be saying ‘Thee’ and ‘Chef’… but when I get home by myself and  remember him and the way he does it, and then he is not ‘Thee’ and ‘Chef’ but ‘Him’ and ‘his’… ach, that doesn’t really work because if ‘his’ was  referring to ‘God’, it would have a capital.

I’m going to ask my teacher, Brian Nellist, about this. I’m stumped. Start again.

To be  ‘prepossest’ is to have ownership in advance – particularly of a thought. Think Herbert is saying he aims to give the future shape of his action over to God in advance, to dedicate it, to let God be part of it.

In my own experience that might be thinking ahead about the best way to do something: not going with my immediate emotion in a situation (angry because…) but encouraging the ideal to take possession of my actions before they happen (how do I want, ideally, to behave). Thinking it through, setting my intention, having a strong picture of the ideal.

This could work in any situation:
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.

You can see the thing directly in front of you or you can see beyond it and see more. I am angry with a cafe which has produced a very poor cake for Brian Nellists’ birthday day. The cafe people are stupid and their customer service is bad. That’s the surface of the glass. I can have a row there and then, or I can take Brian off  and continue our happy birthday mood, making a joke of the cake and his  poor worn out teeth. That continuation of happy mood was the ‘heav’n’.

To finish today  by  arriving at my favourite lines – many people’s favourites, I’m sure:

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the case whenever an ideal is in play.

I  remember 1974 using the cyclostyler, a more frustrating machine there never was, to reproduce women’s liberation leaflets in the front room of Liverpool Women’s Centre. That was a horrible job, messy, frustrating, hot and  hours long. But for the cause! We were amazons, making those fliers!

Thinking of The Reader’s life at Calderstones, where there will be much sweeping of rooms to be done, and we need to develop a shared spirit about the ways in which we all work.

Thinking more generally about trying to be good, and the foresight needed, the fore-thinking.  If you follow the instructions of Bodycoach Joe Wicks, you’ll know it is important to ‘prep like a boss’. To think ahead about what you are going to eat, and get it ready, so that when 11.00 am hunger strikes, you’ve got some carrot sticks and  don’t need to go and buy a doughnut.

Herbert’s poem gives me the chance to imagine putting that amount of care into all the actions of my life, helps me realise it’s what you do everyday, not on the grand occasion, that counts.  Everything is an opportunity for practising the ideal.

This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.

Being put to the fire and talking about it: reading George Herbert

Albertine Roses enjoying the rain, May 30 

On Saturday 3 June, I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading  in London, and really looking forward to a day in the company of fellow readers, with poems by one of my favourite poets, George Herbert, and prose from Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal by Reader Patron, Jeanette Winterson. I’ll be reprising the reading day in Liverpool on Thursday 15th June in Liverpool. I thought I could do a little prep for those days here by reading some  George Herbert this  week. For more on this read yesterday’s post.

I’d started reading The Windows, a George Herbert poem I’m not very familiar with, and am carrying on with that reading today. Sorry to say, yesterday I only got as far as line two.

The Windows

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

I’d been thinking about ‘brittle crazy glass’ and most my energy had been directed at ‘brittle’ and ‘crazy’ but now we come to ‘glass’.  The glass is brittle and crazy and that is its nature, but there is another part of its nature – light gets through – that is equally important. And it is for this that this that people are chosen to preach, are put in this position, ‘This glorious and transcendent place/To be a window’.  Even though  brittle and crazy is still the first thing.

This is the translation I’m making – because I am myself one of those people I wrote about yesterday who might be  struggling to believe in church or preacher. Yet I know from past direct experience, that if I can tune in to George Herbert, he has something to say to me that will be helpful to me. I have to get past my stuck thought, and into a freer, more open-minded place.

As a Shared Reading leader I first have to do this for myself – physician heal thyself! – then I have to be able to do it for any group members who might be struggling in the same way.  The way to do it is by offering imaginative translation that get you from one place to another.

I want to return to my analogy of yesterday about being asked to speak in public  about something.  I wrote about people who are members of Shared Reading groups who sometimes speak about their experiences in Shared Reading at conferences, or to funders or other supporters on behalf of the organisation. Most people – including myself – find that experience worrisome or even frightening, in advance. Let me just talk about myself  –  say I got a call from Cabinet office and someone said, they want to hear about Shared Reading, you’ve got eight mins to tell them.  I’d be excited at the opportunity and terrified of making a mess of it. I’d be thinking of the ways in which I am brittle and crazy (when speaking in public I am so nervous that I cannot look at my notes, therefore I  don’t use notes, therefore I have to remember what I am trying to say…) and I would have to force myself also to remember I am also a glass, that through whatever I manage to say, the human value of Shared Reading, may come through. The opportunity to speak is as Denise Levertov writes in ‘Variation on a theme by Rilke’ , ‘honour and a task’. Or as Herbert puts it here, it is ‘glorious and transcendent’.  Doing it, as I have learned over time, also changes you.  Some onf the internal weaknesses are burned out.

Thinking like this helps me stop feeling that a preacher is a foreign idea to me, and something I don’t want to understand.  I go on, to the second stanza.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

The word I must look up is anneal – to heat in order to remove internal stresses. And from the etymological dictionary, to put to the fire, but also with echoes of burning, fire and firebrand. Isn’t etymology wonderful?

Herbert is talking about the actual physical process of making glass – that’s his analogy – and I’m assuming this is stained glass, because of the ‘story’ being contained in it. Yes, I see later in stanza three, Herbert speaks of ‘colours’. But then he let’s the analogy go as he goes back to the  task of preachers, which is to hold that story, that light. The key thought is in the annealing – which is the process of being baked, burned, fired.  Without such a process the light coming through looks ‘waterish, bleak, and thin’.

This is to do with the pain that goes into real experience. A civil servant, a grants manager, a professional, may be able to coolly summarise Shared Reading in the language and tone normally used in Cabinet office. But a group member who has a story to tell about their experience – however nervous, unprofessional, or initially low-voiced – will speak with fire. Let’s read on;

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

Here’s a powerful chemical mixture: ‘Doctrine and life, colors and light’. ‘Doctrine’ is one of those words that need a translation before the anti-religon person in our group kicks off on one.  Simply – a doctrine is a body of teachings.

Any sort of body of teachings without life added is dull.  I had to go on a speed awareness course. Two men were trying to teach thirty grumpy and self-righteous miscreants like myself why is was important to obey the law on speed when driving. What we were most grumpy about, to a man and woman, was the waste of our time on this silly course. But the two men running the course were very funny and  good at imparting the information and they liked driving, loved cars. They made it live, and that made it bearable. Our grumpiness dissipated. Doctrine – obey the speed limit – and life, when they combine… Good teachers at school were always like that, weren’t they? Something in them shone through, love of their subject or of us, energy in voice, in gesture, liveliness.

                          but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring

Words alone, what Macbeth calls ‘mouth-honour’, is never good. The word ‘flaring’ is a great choice here, implicitly compared to ‘anneal’. Flaring is temporary, is over and done, however momentarily bright. ‘Anneal’ is agony and it transforms you. Flaring gets to the ear, but the voice of ‘anneal’ gets in to the heart, to ‘conscience‘.  I love it  that a thought which starts in self-doubt, in an estimation of our flaws, ‘brittle, crazy’, ends by reaching, through those very attributes, to the inmost part of another human.

Perhaps a little Jeanette Winterson tomorrow?


What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’,  a short poem by Denise Levertov.  I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.

Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a  living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation.  I’m going to pick up here:


into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I wonder now  where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?

Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?

The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’,  without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has  in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.

And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?

Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.

I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…

…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour 
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

I look back to Levertov:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I don’t think it is an  accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of  other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of  lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.

Connecting hunger to ‘being’  Levertov  seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive.  And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy.  This is an argument with or a response to Milton.

I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.

You have the pause at the line end,  then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s  mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger.  All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.


I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams.  She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any  guitarist, just as an English  gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of  cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.

You don’t have to know  music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)

But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.

If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary.  It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.

For me,  if I  was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.

For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).

So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way  this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this.  But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of  the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.

Tomorrow,   we’re turning back to Silas Marner


Getting to know Denise Levertov

The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov waiting for me to open it

One of the largest and most transformative reading experiences I’ve had was reading the Complete Letters of George Eliot when writing my Ph.D. You don’t often see the Letters for sale at a price anyone would be able to afford and you’d probably need a university library to find them on the shelves, so a good way to get at a short version of them is through her husband John Cross’s biography, which is based on extracts from the Letters. (You can read Cross on Project Gutenberg). I’d read the Cross biography, but wanted to look something up in more detail so I went to seek them out and there they were, thousands of letters, in nine fat brown volumes. I started reading and realised I could feel George Eliot’s (or rather Marian Evans’) presence in them, and not just the bits John Cross had selected, but all of her: her kindness to friends, and her irritability, her toothaches, mistakes in love, her dogs, family problems, travel, thinking, music, anger with a friend who borrowed money for a cab from her servant, her continuing toothache,  her unwillingness to back the founding of Girton College, her singing, her loves,  more toothache… she was all here and across time: the young teenager, the struggling young woman, the world-famous writer. I wanted to devote some months to the sweep of the lot – I wanted to get to know her.

There are not many experiences like that in a reading life but a ‘collected poems’ may be of the same order. Realising a few weeks ago that I love the two poems by Denise Levertov that I know well (‘Variation on a Theme by Rilke’, and the poem I read here a few days ago, ‘The Metier of Blossoming’) I thought I would buy her Collected Poems, and get to know her better. The book now sits beside me, a thousand pages deep. I thought I would add my readings in Levertov’s Collected Poems to the projects underway on this blog. ‘Poem of The Day’ will continue and will often use the Oxford Book of English Verse, the slow reading of Silas Marner will continue a couple of times a week, and now getting to know Denise Levertov will be added. I’m not going to read the book chronologically, at least not at the beginning. I’m going to flip through and find things that make me want to dive deeper.

There is the old problem of reproducing works in copyright…a problem I will try to solve, but meanwhile for today I’ve found a link to a poem I’d like to read.

‘O Taste and See’ by Denise Levertov – read the entire poem here.  There is other stuff on that page – don’t read it, or not yet. Just read the poem: this is Levertov’s gift to us, let’s not  let someone else get in the way of the  direct exchange the poet offers.

Read it, read it slowly,  read it aloud and read it a couple of times. Here I read the opening  seven lines:

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I a sort of excitement in the first couple of stanzas,  but they present me with an interesting problem as someone who leads Shared Reading groups.

Levertov’s lines draw on other lines, from other poems and from the Bible, which I recognise, but which I’m not sure that my reading group members will recognise. What am I going to do about that? Regular readers og this blog wil lknow my antipathy towards World of Footnotes.

My first task is to read the poem as myself. I need to come to it clean, without thoughts of other readers or their needs, I need to experience the poem myself. Later, I’ll work out what to do about this – if anything – in my group. My first duty is to read well for myself, because the reading I can make happen in my group will be based on that.

Those two  first lines are a sort of joke, a conversational response, almost banter. I think of Wordsworth in Levertov’s mind: as well-known as a family member, chuntering on in the way he does, and I remember his poem. What she has written is a kind of chiming for someone who has the Wordsworth poem in their head already and it makes me laugh slightly. I love Wordsworth, so what’s making me laugh? The fact that she knows him so well and he is in her head as she meditates on the subway Bible poster and that she is arguing with him. I don’t need to remember the whole of Wordsworth’s poem (though I print it here) the first line will do.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn
I do not  know the Old Testament in the same way that I know Wordsworth, but I bet that ‘O taste and see’ is from the Psalms.
But I don’t want to get caught up on the references. I read the whole of Levertov’s poem through again, and do not look up the Psalm, though I will do that later. Levertov takes the Wordsworth thought about our mechanical, exchange-relation to the world and casually turns it. Nah, William, it’s the other way round. ‘The world is/ not with us enough’. She’s changing the nature of the word ‘ world’,  which is being  influenced by ‘O taste and see’. The world is a thing or series of things we might know by our senses.
Next comes a leap of thought, taking me suddenly into no joke seriousness :
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
I like the bold type, as if taken directly from the poster. I notice the repetition of ‘meaning’, where the second meaning changes the first.
The lines areasking,What does ‘The Lord’ mean to someone who doesn’t believe in ‘The Lord’?
That’s me: I do not yet know enough about Denise Levertov to know if it is also her. I haven’t looked her up on Wikipedia, didn’t read the book’s intro – though I might, later. But from the two poems of hers I do know well, I know  she’s somehow religious. She describes the numinous, the spiritual. I hate all these words, ‘religious’, ‘numinous’, spiritual’, loaded with their dead-to-me meanings. Yet now, reading again,  I notice that Levertov isn’t letting herself be distracted by those feelings , in fact she is remaking the vocabulary and remaking it so that it is full of new meaning:
If ‘The Lord’ is a kind of code for real experience, she says, it is code for ‘all that lives/to the imaginations tongue.’
Wow – now I’m out of my depth, and feel the deeps below, above me. This is the best of the experience of  poetry. Hurrah! I’ve got years of reading this huge lovely book ahead. But for today, frustratingly, time’s up.

What to read in a Shared Reading group: Coleridge’s Work Without Hope

Hostas in the long border at Calderstones. Slugs are leaving their lairs…

Yesterday’s reading of Silas Marner, concentrating on Silas need to weave and to hoard money, reminded me of ‘Work Without Hope’ by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so I’ve chosen that for today’s reading. If we were meeting in a weekly Shared Reading group, and in the thick of chapter two of Silas,  I might well bring it along next time…but it would need most of a session for itself. Short it may be  but it doesn’t seem a quick read.

Here’s a poem about feeling out of kilter with everything:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
         Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
The mention of the slugs sets up a sort of revulsion in me.  When I hear, or remember, ‘All nature seems at work’, there’s an instinct of pleasure – hurray, life is coming back. Then Coleridge completely undercuts that good feeling with a bad one. Slugs!
He goes back to  parts of nature I am more keen on ( bees, birds) but he’s put those  slugs in my mind, and there they are,  bothering me. Still, I try to get over it and think of the bees and the birds and what they promise:
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
Winter isn’t quite as horrible as the slugs, but I’m conscious that various  forces are pulling me about here as I read – good Spring, bad winter, good Nature, horrible slugs. Now I come to a reason for this  tussle: Coleridge feels at odds with the movement of the earth.
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
It cannot quite be the case that Coleridge is the ‘sole unbusy thing’ yet the feeling he suffers  is strong and leads to a lot of  strong negatives  in the final line of this stanza. It’s as if the mind  is moving to and from, attracted and repulsed by good liveliness and then bad retreat. Good things in that last  line – honey, pair, build, sing. I feel their presence. But also feel the almost deadening power of those four times repeated ‘nors’.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
In the second stanza Coleridge remembers  good things he has experienced in the past – he tells us of ‘amaranths and nectar’. He may be thinking about lovely things in nature or he may be  using these as metaphors for pleasure, creativity, joy, fulfillment. He does not feel these things now, though he has known them in the past. The final couplet may be a go at explaining why, but it is hard to get at, though the rhyme gives the impression of something being concluded.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
‘Work without hope’ is the phrase that connected my reading of Silas to this poem. Does Silas ‘work without hope’?  Until he falls in love with the collection of coins he does. Now his ‘hope’ is for the gold, an outcome of the work. But there is no hope for him, for example in human relationships. no hope, no working at it.
Fo9r Coleridge, there may nectar ( for which I’m reading  creative pleasure) but without hope, it cannot be retained. What’s the hope? I feel stuck and need to translate this into something I can practically understand!
Let me turn to bindweed. ‘Bindweed!’ said John the Gardner, when I was looking at the long border at Calderstones with him last week, ‘If you’ve got that you’ll never get rid of it.’
Well I have got it. When I see it my heart sinks. There is work without hope. I will continue to try to get rid of it, but I do feel it has already beaten me. I can do an hour’s weeding but bindweed can undercut my pleasure (it doesn’t actually, because I don’t really care about it, so this isn’t a very good example, but bear with me! Imagine I do really care and feel that bindweed is ruining my garden). If bindweed had so overrun my garden my work wold be work without hope.
But back to the poem – what about Coleridge? He adds bit more ‘And Hope without an object cannot live’.
What’s the object?  And why is this all mixed up? It seems as though Coleridge is telling me this in the wrong order – I feel I am having to twist myself round to follow what he means in this closing couplet.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
Let me  start again, at the end  – hope without an object cannot live.  When Silas was banished from the Lantern Yard community he had no hope because he had no object- he knew he  could not get back. It was all over.  Now he must work ( to live) and does so, mechanically. There is no pleasure in it – work is ‘nectar in a seive’. Until he starts to love the gold, then he has hope.
But for Coleridge, working without hope, the sad thing  is there is still a strange taste of ‘nectar’ – you just can’t keep hold of it, ‘nectar in a seive.’
Coleridge doesn’t give any explanations: this is a simply description of the state he is in. Great thing about it? He has been creative even with his depression. He has produced something.
Lots of questions arise: Does it bother you to read a poem about what we’d probably call depression? What would group members want to talk about? What would you do as a Reader Leader to create a safe place for talking about the feelings of negativity the poem might illuminate?
But time is up for today.

Silas Marner Day 9: Feeling Connected To Things

Aquilegias nodding a welcome at the front door 18 May 

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.

We are in chapter two, and reading a paragraph beginning ‘Silas now found himself and his cottage suddenly beset’, which is giving us an account of how Silas became completely cut-off from his neighbours. People think he can work magic cures:

But the hope in his wisdom was at length changed into dread, for no one believed him when he said he knew no charms and could work no cures, and every man and woman who had an accident or a new attack after applying to him, set the misfortune down to Master Marner’s ill-will and irritated glances. Thus it came to pass that his movement of pity towards Sally Oates, which had given him a transient sense of brotherhood, heightened the repulsion between him and his neighbours, and made his isolation more complete.

I’m interested in the second sentence here, ‘thus is came to pass…’ which points to another in a series of misfortunes which have hit Silas and broken his life. Silas has suffered expulsion from his original community on Lantern Yard, now without ever having been properly connected to them Silas is increasingly cut off from his neighbours in Raveloe. The fact that he has had a ‘transient sense of brotherhood’ and lost it again is painful, and may be part of that strong word, ‘repulsion’ – which is not one way – Silas feels it as much as the villagers.

The next paragraph takes on the analysis of the growth of habit. Silas weaves to comfort himself and is paid in gold, and he ‘loves’ the gold as a kind of companion. Is it impossible to imagine how man might come to love coins? George Eliot asks us to  look at our own habits and extrapolate from what we do know:

Do we not wile away moments of inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient habit? That will help us to understand how the love of accumulating money grows an absorbing passion in men whose imaginations, even in the very beginning of their hoard, showed them no purpose beyond it.

It’s interesting that her analysis of a habit is ‘repetition has bred a want’, which I think is almost exactly what contemporary psychology believes about the formation of habit. I’ve been reading Charles Duhig’s book Habit, (don’t have it with me as I write so can’t look it up) a really fascinating account of what habits are and how they form and may be broken. Becoming a miser, George Eliot seems to be saying, is not about deliberate will, based in imagination (I want to be….) but rather more like becoming an alcoholic.  The repetition creates a need, which becomes the habit.

Marner wanted the heaps of ten to grow into a square, and then into a larger square; and every added guinea, while it was itself a satisfaction, bred a new desire. In this strange world, made a hopeless riddle to him, he might, if he had had a less intense nature, have sat weaving, weaving–looking towards the end of his pattern, or towards the end of his web, till he forgot the riddle, and everything else but his immediate sensations; but the money had come to mark off his weaving into periods, and the money not only grew, but it remained with him.

Something lovely about the golden faces of the coins breaks up the robotic compulsion to weave. ‘The money had come’ and the money ‘remained with him.’ They very fact of not losing it, it being a constant in Silas’ broken life, creates an emotional bond for him:

He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and colour were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.

Of course the loom is not conscious of him and neither are the coins: that attribution of consciousness is a kind of  love, an animation of inanimate objects into companions, or to use George Eliot’s word, ‘familiars‘. He is not a witch, and yet the word is used  in both its senses here – they are members of his family, they are his intimate associates. And they are in some sense his creatures that do his bidding. They stack up. They make patterns. They are an external manifestation of  something within Silas.They provide order.  This makes a sort of life.

So, year after year, Silas Marner had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love–only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.

Here we come to a sort of nub – remember a few days ago I wrote about ‘what counts?’  ‘Faith and love’ affect life and without them, all lives, not just the lives of simple men like Silas become ‘reduced’ to mere ‘functions’. Those ‘functions’ may look more interesting or respectable, ‘some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory’ but the mechanical ‘pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being’ is the problem, not the  nature of the work. ‘Faith and love’ and ‘any other being’ are the key components George Eliot recognises here as  part of the character of a fulfilled life.  Silas’ life is ‘narrowing and hardening itself’ into one channel.

One of the things George Eliot is almost obsessed by is how, as in this part of the story, small daily actions lead to big life-breaking consequences. I’m suddenly struck, as I read this morning, with the thought that Silas is himself like something caught in a web. Gradually, he is losing the ability to move – or be moved by anything but his gold. But not quite:

Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.

So, objects seem to have expressions and attitudes and to call up emotions:the pot ‘had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water’. Silas is still alive to feeling and when he sticks the bits back together it is almost an act of love or of  thanks or gratitude. He props the ruin ‘in its old place for a memorial’.  If he has human friends, so he would mark their passing.

If we were together in a group now, we would spend some time thinking about ways in which we imbue objects with personality ? Does your mug seem friendly,  does your sink full of dishes look accusing? And what does this mean for the human tendency/necessity for ‘relationship’?