I am not a Parrot: Reading Shakespeare with Wilfred Bion

inside ruin.JPG
Fig and Ivy growing inside C18 ruined palace, Bay of Kotor, 20 July

I’m concentrating this morning on  choosing a passage from The Tavistock Seminars by Wildred Bion.

A reader,  Orientikate, writes to ask where to start with reading Wildred Bion. I found my colleague,  Josie Billington’s book, Is Literature Healthy  (OUP, The Literary Agenda series) is engaging, useful and interesting, so I would recommend that as a starting place. If you want to begin directly with Bion himself, Attention and Interpretation, is, I’m told, a good place. Let me know how you get on.

I’ve used most of my Daily Practice hour in rereading parts of The Tavistock Seminars I read yesterday, looking for a passage to write about. Here it is:

We ought to be cautious and not get too misled by the fact that we can read—that is not good enough. It is like saying that because we can see black and white marks on paper, we can therefore read music—we can’t. So people who aspire to read a Shakespeare play ought to go into a certain amount of training for the purpose, and to have certain minimum conditions in which to read it. Shakespeare wrote, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements“ [Macbeth, I.v]. There is only one word that is at all long—battlements. Put the lot together and you get a phrase that does something to you today. Where that comes from, I don’t know—I don’t know what happens to these things. I am reminded of Milton’s reference to Alpheus: “Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past . . .“ [“Lycidas“] and so on. There he is using the simile of the river that goes underground and then bobs up again somewhere else. Where it comes up and what effect it may have, goodness knows. A wild phrase of that sort goes through the ages. In a sense we could say, “Well, most people in this country talk English, so it’s a perfectly understandable explanation.“ Yes, I don’t want to deny the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation. What we are concerned with are the other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth. ” (from “The Tavistock Seminars” by Wilfred R. Bion, Seminar Two, 4 July 1977)

This is  on the surface a contentious issue for people who practice Shared Reading. In this practice, we teach that there are no wrong answers, that all views are valid, that everyone’s point of view is to be listened to.  We would never say, as Bion clearly does in the  first sentence quoted here, ‘this is not good enough.’

Or would we?

In the teaching of Shared Reading  leadership there are a certain set of precepts, of pedagogical assumptions:

  • literature has much to offer but most people can’t get at that offer because they are afraid of  looking or feeling or being stupid
  • most adults (and many children) have almost certainly been damaged by previous educational experiences, and may be further damaged by this
  • humans need to feel secure, free and at ease before they can learn
  • the  key thing is to create a  sense within the group of security,  of kindness
  • that sense of  kindness is extended by  the Reader Leader’s modelling willingness to listen –  to whatever is said

There almost certainly are other underlying  precepts but these set out our starting place, which is essentially therapeutic: we intend to  ease the pain caused by previous damage in relation to literature or education more  generally.

But the purpose, the ambition, of Shared Reading is not in itself therapeutic, it is pedagogic. We don’t set out to cure people, we set out to  teach them to read literature (which of course  may be  curative, therapeutic or healing but I’m not making any claims for that here).

Therefore, at some point, I would say, a Shared Reading group leader might well say, with Bion, ‘this is not good enough’  as any teacher might of any attempt at something by any pupil. Of course . ‘This is not good enough’ is one of the traumatising responses from  teachers which has  caused so much inability to learn in the first place. Must teaching  then always be unconditional love of the pupil’s work? No. Teaching should involve a relationship of trust between pupil and teacher in which the pupil willing accepts the word of the teacher. Bion says to me ‘this is not good enough’ and I trust him, and our relationship, and myself, and Shakespeare, enough to take Bion’s word as a truth I can  deal with.

But between ‘ Welcome beginner/outsider/non-reader…’ and ‘this is not good enough’ lies a world of experience, growth and learning.  Learning, Bion says elsewhere, is always hard. It’s as if at some level, the biological entity  that is a human doesn’t want to learn – to learn is to change – to change is terrifying.

It is for the tactful group leader,  the careful reader of people, to decide if her group  – all members of it, or only some of them?  only one of them? – is at a point where more might be demanded. And how one  phrases  ‘this is not good enough’ to make it non-traumatic.

That is not a tick-box decision but the  decision of years of experience. I’d want to argue that  all Reader Leaders should be looking to up the stakes whenever they can: we want to get the most out of  each reading experience.

Can anyone read a Shakespeare play? Yes.

Do I agree with Wilfred Bion – that there is something strange and wild about Shakespeare   that evades simply being able to read the black marks on the page? Yes.

What do I think of this statement?

So people who aspire to read a Shakespeare play ought to go into a certain amount of training for the purpose, and to have certain minimum conditions in which to read it.

That is exactly what  we do in Shared Reading: the training takes place on the job, and the minimum conditions are the same as  for all  readings: concentrated purpose, collective attention, personalisation, return to the language, look at the language. The great thing to concentrate on is making live, is not reducing reading to Anyone’s  Notes but to feelings of  the psychological reality that language may offer up.

Shakespeare wrote, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements“ [Macbeth, I.v]. There is only one word that is at all long—battlements. Put the lot together and you get a phrase that does something to you today. Where that comes from, I don’t know—I don’t know what happens to these things.

The Reader Leader must above all be kind, yes, but when a group member tries to short-circuit the experience by looking up the meaning of the phrase in the back of the book, saying ‘ It’s says in the notes in my book that this means…’  then the Reader Leader must be bold, very bold.

Who cares about the notes! the note writer isn’t here, isn’t sitting round the table. The note writer won’t know, and can’t explain, what that phrase does to you. But to lead a group of people into the strange place, where we don’t know what language is doing to us, but might feel it, may be able to express what we feel… that is a bold undertaking. And the group won’t come with you if there is no trust. So your key task, when reading something hard, is to build  trust – trust in your leadership, trust in the text, trust in ourselves as a group (I’ll come to another thought about this, from The Tavistock Seminars, tomorrow). Bion continues:

A wild phrase of that sort goes through the ages. In a sense we could say, “Well, most people in this country talk English, so it’s a perfectly understandable explanation.“ Yes, I don’t want to deny the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation. What we are concerned with are the other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth.

Quite so. We don’t want to deny ‘the perfectly simple, straightforward, obvious explanation’ and indeed may spend quite a bit of time getting to it. But it is  what Bion calls ‘wild’  that is most important – something beyond ‘explanation.’ ‘Other explanations—even wild ones—which may be nearer the truth.’ So that is our job, as Reader Leaders, to create a space in which the wild may enter, and in which readers become students of their own understanding, not reciters old dead stuff someone else decided.  Which is not to say that someone else couldn’t have had a truly brilliant thought about the raven and the battlements  and that it  could be really exciting to  follow someone else’s thought (as I did, reading Josie Billington’s book mentioned above). Only to  make it my own, I have to do something with it, something more than recite it. After all, I am not a parrot.

Silas Marner Day 19: Let Us Now Praise Powerful Women*

hydranga.JPG
Hydrangea and Madonna  lilies doing a good domestic job in the drain corner

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box. I’m picking up in Chapter X, where we learn how what was, to everyone else in the village, the subject of interesting, idle gossip (the robbery of Silas’s gold) is, to Silas himself, a possibly life-threatening trauma:

To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging. But now the fence was broken down–the support was snatched away. Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

There is no getting over this.

I’d noticed before that Silas, locked into his loom, had been likened to a spider. Now he’s suffering like an ant. That ‘blank’ that meets the ant ‘when the earth has broken away on its homeward path’ is memorable: there’s something so pathetic about the inability of the creature to  get over, get round, see beyond the breakage which has  stopped it. I always feel a bit scared when I see that – and  that feeling of fear must be because its only a step away from imagining what I might look like to someone much, much bigger, when I am butting up against my insurmountable problems. The  clash of those two perspectives – the stuck and the  bigger picture – is painful. But here we are  – as a not-Silas, imagining perhaps  ‘you could get over it’, but as Silas, just feeling ‘never get over it’. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘the feet,mechanical, go round.’

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

However, Marner does  gain something from his terrible loss, and that is the  kindness of his village neighbours.  It would be difficult to find a modern equivalent to this – maybe workmates’ kindness? For those of us in work, possibly, there can community at work. Maybe in a  street where people are largely unemployed and are also a relativity static population, so have the chance of knowing each other? But for many of us  – no. This wouldn’t happen. We’re not connected enough. Hence the growing UK epidemic of loneliness.

But for Silas, the feel of the village changes: people stop thinking him a witch and start thinking of him as ‘a poor mushed creatur’: and thus along with gifts of black pudding and pigs pettitoes,

Neighbours … showed a disposition not only to greet Silas and discuss his misfortune at some length when they encountered him in the village, but also to take the trouble of calling at his cottage and getting him to repeat all the details on the very spot; and then they would try to cheer him by saying, “Well, Master Marner, you’re no worse off nor other poor folks, after all; and if you was to be crippled, the parish ‘ud give you a ‘lowance.”

One of the neighbours we meet now is Mrs Dolly Winthrop – one of the greatest women in literature, and on a par for me with Paulina, the  powerful matriarchal force at the centre of The Winter’s Tale. Dolly is a do-er,  full of energy and  kindness:

..in all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience, so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning, which it was a constant problem with her to remove. Yet she had not the vixenish temper which is sometimes supposed to be a necessary condition of such habits: she was a very mild, patient woman, whose nature it was to seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life, and pasture her mind upon them.

Dolly is ‘eager for duties’, ( this is like Paulina,  faced with a mad and dangerous King, deciding he must be spoken to and resolving ‘He must be told on’t, and he shall. The office becomes a woman best: I’ll take it upon me.’) In the days when most women had no access to careers, women like Paulina and Dolly, who might be running NHS Trusts or Government Departments now, had to use their considerable energy in private life, in relationship management. George Eliot (like Shakespeare?) adores such women.

Before we go back to Silas  I want to notice the use of the verb ‘pasture’ at the end of the section above. We’ve already noticed natural-process metaphors of the seed/harvest type, but  ‘pasture’ is a strange one, isn’t it? It makes Dolly’s mind like a farm animal (for these are the animals that are put to pasture), and that makes Dolly like a workhorse, cow, beast of burden? Patient, mild, but working. Strong. And her mind, when her nature makes her ‘seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life’, gets to work on those sad and serious things, which is a great place for human mind to be.  It doesn’t feel a quick mind, it feels slow and steady, even ruminant. But strong and present. It will do a good job.

There’s a thought here, which I really don’t have time to write out carefully today, about this kind of ‘work’, a kind of work George Eliot herself was particularly good at: the application of intellect and heart to profound human problems.

Yesterday I spent several hours in a Design Team meeting at Calderstones, with a gender balance of three women and eleven men.  The men were architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, health and safety men, quantity surveyors… they were practical men who know about electrical cables and trenches,  bat droppings in roof spaces, loads on beams and lengths of ducting. I was suddenly aware that they were men operating, as it were,  a piece of machinery (the machine: the design/build meeting) which men have been operating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Groups of men like this designed the pyramids and put up stonehenge as well as most of the houses we’ve ever had, and I was aware of a culture of men, and the long history of that culture: men in their  structures and specific and hierarchical roles, they all knew where they were and what their bit of the job was, and they got a lot of stuff built. The women in the room were two of us Reader people, ‘the client’, and  the architectural assistant, and that made me think…

What were the women doing all those thousands of years while the men were holding design-build meetings and digging  trenches and  felling oak trees?  They were having babies and  hoeing turnips, looking after toddlers and making clay pots, running dairies and being prostitutes, nursing the sick, laying out the dead, picking  barley. But the boys are having design-build meetings and thinking about smoke escape routes, and drainage and value-engineering.  As Talking Heads sing,

The girls don’t want to play like that,
They just want to talk to the boys.
They just want to do what is in their hearts,
And the girls want to be with the girls.

And very powerful and naturally intelligent women, like George Eliot (aka Marian Evans) and Dolly Winthrop… what did they do with their brains back in the day  when women could not become structural engineers? Marian Evans  could cook a Harvest Home supper for 60 and bottle preserves with the best of them, and by night she used her brain, teaching herself,  as a  young woman, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian and complex mathematics at home from books. She was of a class that could buy books, and her father (a design-build man if ever there was one) recognised the brightness of his daughter, and gave her an account at the local bookshop and got her access to the library of his employer at Arbury Hall. But a Dolly Winthrop, with a such a brain, growing up in the peasant class in a rural village? Well, let us see what George Eliot makes of her.

But first, going back to the book, we turn again  to Silas, and see how he will take to Dolly, with her nature and her mind, coming into his life:

Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken. Left groping in darkness, with his prop utterly gone, Silas had inevitably a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without; and there was a slight stirring of expectation at the sight of his fellow-men, a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill. He opened the door wide to admit Dolly, but without otherwise returning her greeting than by moving the armchair a few inches as a sign that she was to sit down in it.

Interesting that before his loss Silas didn’t have any sense of dependence on the goodwill of fellow-men, but now  with nothing else to turn to, he has ‘a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill’.

Excellent. Silas is partially set up for some sort of help, and Dolly is primed to give it.

*My title today calls on James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Lilies

lilies.JPG
Madonna lilies have made it into flower, despite the winds and weather, 16 June

Thinking about poems as puzzles/unexploded bombs and the pleasure I used to have, in the early days of my reading life, of simply cracking what seemed to me the code, which yesterday I called ‘getting it’. The process starts from ‘don’t get it!’ which – at school, college and university – always used to feel angry, as if I was being deliberately excluded from the meaning. Then is goes on to working through the poem line by line, bit by bit, until some kind of understanding is arrived it. Then ‘I get it!’ One of the first poems I remember having this experience with was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’.

It was in an ‘A’ level literature class at Liverpool Community College, with Ken Moss, Head of English, a great teacher. I don’t recall if this was the first poem he brought us for Practical Criticism but it may have been the first one that really got me.

What is that feeling of being outside the text? I remember it not only from poems and  other works of literature I found hard as a student, but also from childhood when trying to read something  beyond me – Our Mutual Friend, say, at the age of  eight or nine, which I just couldn’t understand, though I could read. It was too hard. Perhaps,  although I could read the words, I couldn’t think the thoughts?

Sometimes when we look at poem we aren’t reading it, we’re scanning. The scan happens and your brain computes: I can’t take all this in. A resistance is set up, you stop trying. The poem moves away. There’s a distance. For me there is then a period of re-gathering, I have to read the poem aloud, and I have to go very slowly, not ‘deconstructing’, but reconstructing! I build a little unit of meaning  and then build the next. When I look back now to Sonnet 94, it feels far-off and meaningless at first. I have to reignite my sense of it by slow reading, andI’m looking for tonal clues as I read the first time – what’s it about?

Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

There’s an odd mix of  tone –  whoever is referred to as ‘they’ – do I trust them? At first it seems as though I should because they will do no harm, but later I see they are ‘as stone,/
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ – that doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to do with. So why do they ‘inherit heaven’s graces?’ and – actually- what does that mean? These people are ‘the lords and owners of their faces’. Are we talking about control here?

I’m aware all the time I’m tussling with the opening lines that there is the strong couplet at the end and I am heading towards it –

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies, as you can see from today’s photograph, are really very lovely looking things. And they smell gorgeous, until they ‘fester’ when the odour becomes rank. Are we talking about people who look good but may not be? I read again:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;

Some kinds of people (‘they’) have power and don’t use it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing but I wonder if it makes any difference what I think about it – Shakespeare’s describing something, a kind of person. Perhaps one person? (Various things are known about the Sonnets, and all that can easily be discovered, but for me principally, a key fact is that this one of a longer run of poems and they have  connections between them – it doesn’t quite stand alone. You might want to bring the Sonnets that go before and after along too…)

You have to ask, what state is the writer in?

Say I said, in modern English it means something like – some people have power but wont use it, look good but are covered over, hiding their real feelings, people who make me feel powerful feelings but feel nothing themselves, those people, yep! they are the lucky ones, they  having blessings showered on them… Shakespeare seems in a bad way, liking or loving or attracted to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and yet for Shakespeare  that’s not just felt as rejection, but as a kind of weird – slightly bitter? – honouring. Cyncical, bitter?

The second part seems angry or even in someway threatening. Perhaps stomping about ranting, perhaps worrying in a corner. Is something wrong with this person who uses his/her face as a mask?  The summer’s flower doesn’t seem to know what it is doing – to itself it ‘only live and die’ – whereas to everything round it – the summer – it is ‘sweet’. Do people like this know what they are doing to other people? The gorgeous who don’t acknoledge the effect their gorgousness has on others…And if they don’t know what they are, and what they might do, might they do something bad?

We get to ‘deeds’ in the end.  Looks, outward appearances, and in the end, what is done.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Now I notice that the verb ‘do’ is in the first line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,’… in fact the word ‘do’ appears four times in the first two lines!

But I am out of time, must dash… what a weird poem. Makes me want to read the Sonnets again.

Would you talk about s*x ‘n’ Shakespeare in your Shared Reading group?

libertia
Libertia doing its energetic thing in the front garden

This weekend I met a reader who said, ‘I love Silas Marner and reread it this year, but I liked it on the blog when you were reading a poem a day from the Oxford Book of English Verse and finding things that were new to you!’

For that reader, I’ll turn now to the Helen Gardner edition of the OBEV and I’m lighting on a Shakespeare poem I’ve never read: ‘Courser and Jennet.Why have I passed this poem over hundreds of times when flicking through the anthology looking for something to read (read myself, or read with a Shared Reading group?) Well, the name.  Sorry but I am in a rush and it sounds unlikely. Secondly, if I did stop to look, it’s about a horse… I like horses but is that the kind of poem I want to read today? Always – until now – the answer has been ‘No!’ I’m usually looking for something human, which I can recognise as having to do with me.  But when looking for a poem I’ve never read I have to go outside of my specialist area. And here I am.  How do I decide to choose it over the other three poems I’ve never read that I’ve looked at this morning? A quick read through and it seems full of energy. That’ll do.

Need to know – Courser is a swift strong horse, as ridden by knights in battle, a warhorse. A Jennet is a light spanish horse.

As I re-read I notice ‘Adonis’ and realise the poem must be part of the longer poem Venus and Adonis, (1593) which I’ve also not read. Or if have read, have forgotten.

But before we look it up – let’s just read the thing and see what we can make of it, just us! With no footnotes and no critical apparatus. Roll your sleeves up, readers.

Read aloud!

Courser and Jennet

But, lo! from forth a copse that neighbours by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young, and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
The strong-necked steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.

His ears up-pricked, his braided hanging mane,
Upon his compassed crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Sometime he trots, as if he told the steps,
With gentle majesty and modest pride;
Anon he rears upright, curvets and leaps,
As who should say, “Lo! thus my strength is tried;
And this I do to captivate the eye
Of the fair breeder that is standing by.’

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur,
For rich caparisons or trappings gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportioned steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one,
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

Sometime he scuds far off, and there he stares;
Anon he starts at stirring of a feather;
To bid the wind a base he now prepares,
And whether he run or fly they know not whether;
For through his mane and tail the high wind sings,
Fanning the hairs, who wave like feathered wings.

He looks upon his love, and neighs unto her;
She answers him as if she knew his mind;
Being proud, as females are, to see him woo her,
She puts on outward strangeness, seems unkind,
Spurns at his love and scorns the heat he feels,
Beating his kind embracements with her heels.

Then, like a melancholy malcontent,
He vails his tail that, like a falling plume,
Cool shadow to his melting buttock lent:
He stamps, and bites the poor flies in his fume.
His love, perceiving how he was enraged,
Grew kinder, and his fury was assuaged.

His testy master goeth about to take him;
When lo! the unbacked breeder, full of fear,
Jealous of catching, swiftly doth forsake him,
With her the horse, and left Adonis there.
As they were mad, unto the wood they hie them,
Out-stripping crows that strive to over-fly them.

 

The ‘But lo!’ opening tells us that we are in the middle of something. We don’t know what is going on in the bit of the picture that is out of shot: we can only see the horses.

But, lo! from forth a copse that neighbours by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young, and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
The strong-necked steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.

See what I mean about the energy: the poem seems to be in very fast pentameter (five beats) – look at this line: ‘And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud’. what I vaguely remember about Venus and Adonis is that Venus pursued Adonis, who wasn’t interested. The horses are in a different state of mind, or body. The Courses is so affected by the appearance of the lively Jennet that he breaks the bonds his human captivity has put on him, rein, girth and bit. Like the Jennet, the Course too is  alive with uncontrolled energy  ‘Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds’.

Would you talk about sex in a Shared Reading group? Sometimes it has happened to me that I’ve tactfully averted my eyes from sexual implications in a text, only to find a group member quite willing to broach the subject. That might happen here, because this is sexual energy Shakespeare is describing.  Makes me wonder how this extract sits in the bigger poem, which (I’m guessing) must partly be about frustrated sexual energy?

But let me go back to the poem, where you’ll see I’m not reading anything into it that isn’t there:

His ears up-pricked, his braided hanging mane,
Upon his compassed crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Sometime he trots, as if he told the steps,
With gentle majesty and modest pride;
Anon he rears upright, curvets and leaps,
As who should say, “Lo! thus my strength is tried;
And this I do to captivate the eye
Of the fair breeder that is standing by.’

I love the movement from the unconstrained energy of ‘hot courage’ and ‘high desire’ to those little mincing movements we’ve seen in racehorses at Aintree. And the account of the deliberate attraction behaviour of any animal in hot pursuit – ‘and this I do to captivate the eye’! This is fiction, but Shakespeare has drawn it from real horses. And people? Are you thinking only of horses as the images  come into your mind? Or are you thinking of women tossing their hair and cracking jokes, men flaunting wit or muscles?

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur,
For rich caparisons or trappings gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Actually what I’m seeing here is my dog Davy heading off over the hill towards Caldy when either a bitch or a ditch by smell was calling him.

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?

He could not hear me. My voice was nothing against those smells. There comes a point in any animal life where human commands are as nothing. And what is true for animals is also true for humans: ‘He sees his love, and nothing else he sees’.

If we were reading in a Shared Reading group now,  people might have accounts of bold deeds done for love, how he came back  from Brazil or she ignored her father’s command. That conversation could well run and run but at some point, we’d have to say, ‘let’s get back to the poem.’

Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportioned steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one,
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

This is an interesting bit, because Shakespeare seems to become aware of himself as the writer, or as a maker of art, a maker of an image of a horse –  ‘so did this horse excel a common one’. And the language here becomes the kind of language I associate with Shakespeare. In fact there are recognisable rhythms – (‘inch thick, knee deep’, The Winter’s Tale) there’s a kind of play, of pleasure in the way the words can be lined up: ‘thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide’.

Oh, time’s up. More tomorrow. Or maybe I go back to Silas.

The great iamb: King Charles III

 

beech trees
A family of Beech trees  in Calderstones Park 10 May

Not reading Silas Marner today – you’ll find all Silas postings if you search under the tag ‘Silas Marner’. But today, it’s about telly, then a bit of Shakespeare.

Came home and had my tea in the back garden, the day still warm and sunny, did a little pottering, admired my new plant ( Paeonia, Bowl of Beauty – photos to come) . Had to make a few phone calls. Lay on sofa talking to my old mum. Went to find husband watching TV. Some programme about the Royals was just starting. Watched for a few moments out of sheer nosy interest (I go to bed early – sometimes at 8.30pm) and was surprised to find myself thinking the music was rather good, not what I would have predicted for a TV mini series. But it wasn’t a TV mini series – it was play. It was a play ! On telly! This was like living in 1967 when people still thought you could put culture on the box. And even more weirdly, it was a play written in iambic pentameter.

Don’t swipe away! That meter’s good for stuff! (That’s an iambic-ish pentameter)

If you didn’t catch King Charles III, written by Mike Bartlett, on BBC 2 last night, I recommend it. Inventive, moving, well-pitched, and with lively intelligence at play all the way through, it kept me up until 10.30pm, and not much does that. Iambic pentameter! Fancy that, though. It made the play seem related to Shakespeare, and there were echoes of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, but it wasn’t pastiche. It was something new, its self, made of  bits of old stuff and bits of modern stuff. It was creative and witty. There was a great (iambic) line from Kate to the Duchess of Cornwall (sorry I can’t remember it) about the need for ‘column inches’ but there was also another that drew on Lear’s ‘nothing comes of nothing…’ There were also echoes of ‘say this was a mini series’ and echoes of ‘say you were reading this in the Daily Mail’ which made the play feel incredibly up to date. Lots to think about. I might even watch it again.

But mainly it made me think about blank verse, which is  verse without rhyme and verse often (usually?) written the meter known as iambic pentameter. I love it! I’ve been wanting to read a little Shakespeare, so that is today’s poem for the day.  It’s a little portion from the end of The Winter’s Tale. Perhaps a little connected to Silas Marner, in that Queen Hermione, falsely accused by her husband of infidelity and treason, and who has lost two children to her husband’s rage, has been ‘gone’ (presumed dead) for sixteen years. As we join the court at the culmination of the play, a great reunion  is about to happen, Hermione is not dead but has been absent, turned to stone (lots of ways you might understand it: e.g. in a state of psychotic splitting, severely depressed, so deeply traumatised as to be locked in, etc.) Paulina, her friend, a great lady of the court, is about to bring her back to life and her daughter, Perdita, also presumed dead, is found. Here Paulina calls on Perdita to come forward and help bring her mother back to life:

 

 

PAULINA

That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale: but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.

HERMIONE

You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own.
Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found
Thy father’s court? for thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.

The great iamb, the two syllable sound pattern that underlies our normal English speech  (say te-tum and you are sounding out an iamb, short unstressed syllable followed by longer stressed syllable) is set in groups of five  to make the classic line-rythym of blank verse (te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum).

Where hast/ thou been/ preserved?/ where lived?/ how found

Why does this matter, I can hear someone shouting, for goodness sake, Jane, I thought you were against formal teaching of English Lit?

I am against bad teaching. I’m against  things being turned into dead stuff! But I’m for good teaching! And I love playing with iambs! If someone had  playfully taught me about these at school I might have liked it.

Reading literature is partly a process of noticing a lot of tiny things. You have to notice as much as you can. there’s an awful lot to notice and most of it goes by us. Noticing a lot of tiny things and caring about them  must go into good practice of anything – cooking, gardening, sub-atomic physics, accounting, dog-training.

The meter of a poem is one of the things you can train yourself to notice. Noticing this kind of stuff began to matter to me early on in my life as  a teacher because it does something in the poetry. I thought  that last night while watching King Charles III. Now what does it do?

It formalises ordinary speech into general patterns, which means you can play with rhythms, with emphasis. Look at this

Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.

Paulina is talking to the lost, now found child, Perdita. Hermione is standing like a statue frozen in her sixteen year loss. The iamb (te-tum) is like a gentle, rhythmic heartbeat under the  lines. Read the lines aloud very slowly. Feel the rhythms. Shakespeare can leave a word like ‘kneel’ pulling against the rhythm at the end of the that line because it is a single syllable word  in a two-based pattern, so we get different rhythms playing over each other. These rhythms affect the meaning, add to the emotional charge: speak it, th command ‘kneel’: you have to wait there despite the fact that the sense rushes on. And here’s another, where (I think) the underlying rhythm changes a little, a slight variation. Though this line has ten syllables and therefore might be an iambic pentameter, the stresses fall in other places. (There are other names for other types of stressed and unstressed syllables but I have no time for that today, look here).

As when tones or keys change or resolve in music, our mind is looking out for the pattern and the change of pattern alerts us to something or moves us in some way. The stresses are on the first parts of  mothers and blessing and the last three words are all stressed; ‘Turn, good lady.’ Perhaps ‘good’ is slightly less stressed ( you have to keep saying, reading the words, to feel it), so that the big message is ‘turn lady’.

Ow, time’s up. Messy post.

 

A Slight Glitch and Shakey

Morning, readers. Today I’ve changed my site format and that’s done something odd with my photos in previous posts. Hope to sort this double vision soon. Advice gratefully received.

But don’t want to let that glitch interrupt my morning reading and writing.

I am still thinking about Thursday’s meeting with Sonya Hale, and about Daniel Magariel’s novel, One of The Boys, (see yesterday’s post) and about the deep resonances and ancient feelings that meeting and that novel provoked into life. For that reason, this poem by William Shakespeare caught my attention this morning. I must have read it before but I really don’t remember it. Why not? Today it is full of meanings. If you are new to Shakespeare read it aloud. Read it aloud anyway.

Sonnet 110
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
I felt a delight in the opening line. There is nothing like recognition for provoking pleasure, even when it is recognition of having made a fool of yourself.
As I read on  the poem seems to be about having been unfaithful yet it didn’t feel to me only about sexual fidelity.
The shame of the opening is about having been disloyal to yourself. And ‘Here and there’ made me think of things Sonya said about the moving about from town to town when she was street homeless.  There is real, sad recognition (as much as guilt) in  ‘made myself a motley to the view’. (‘Motley’ is the name given to clothing worn by fools). It’s not only the humiliation of that idiocy but the shame of having done it to myself.
By the time I got to line 3, ‘Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear’, I was thinking about old mistakes and infidelities, not to my beloved, but to my better self. The violence of ‘gored’ gave me pause to reflect on the self-injury of bad thinking.
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Now I read the next four lines together, another  little lump of thought:
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Is Shakespeare is responding to something another person has said – in a row, perhaps?  ‘You’ve looked on truth askance and strangely!!’ Thus he begins ‘Most true it is…’ but going off after others, or dishonesties, or cheating  or whatever he means by ‘these blenches‘ , it  ‘gave my heart another youth/and worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.’ Thus, out of bad something good may come? I realised you were the one for me!
The ‘askance and strangely’ is resonant of the ways in which, when you are not able to be true, all things are twisted. In Magariel’s novel, the father’s love for his sons is a twisted ‘askance’ version of something which is more like ownership. Will he one day go into recovery and see what he has done to his sons?
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Shakespeare’s saying he’s never going to go off with someone else, never again! I’m back, forever. Would you believe him? Well, no, I wouldn’t, much as I often don’t believe myself when I promise myself I’m going to keep my room tidy.  What? After all these decades of chaos? You’re really going to change?
No, this is the return of a philanderer. Don’t give him welcome. As my friend Shelley once memorably said, ‘Chuck him, love, he’s a loser.’
But say I overrode these thoughts and feelings about the top-level  experience of the poem, the  unfaithful lover, and  went to something under the  lines, something about not being true, not necessarily about love or sexual relationship.
There are many ways in which a person can be unfaithful. Because of my conversation with Sonya, because of Magariel’s book  I’ve been thinking about the way in which one is required to practice faithfulness to a true ideal (I want to be a decent person, I want to be responsible and honest). How many times in that long effort have I ‘gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view’?  if you a re not going to get stuck at that point, you absolutely need to believe there is a place to which to return.
Thinking of Daniel Magariel’s book; the addicted parent may try to clean up, to get sober, to become  good parent (in another book!). The boys may grow up and want to learn to be decent men, not easy after growing up with a Dad like that. But these desires for change can and do happen even after we have ‘sold cheap what is most dear/made old offences of affections new.’
Believing in hope and change, you’d have to find a way to say ‘welcome back’ to the sinner that repenteth, wouldn’t you? When that sinner is yourself, when the offences are against your self, the only place you have to come back to is your self. I see the poem is ‘about’  a lover returning after shenanigans with others, and I read that at one level, as if it were a story I can lend myself to. But to understand it, and to feel it, I have to make the underlying connection with my own experience. So  I read as myself, returning to myself, after messing up again.  It would be good to be welcoming, pure, loving.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
And that makes me think of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love.
Excuse me, I need to tidy my room.