The Winter’s Tale Day 2: Two Men Walk Into A Room

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Snowdrops emerging near some Buddlea cuttings – hurray for soon to be Spring

My main feeling when I start reading a Shakespeare play with other people is the excitement of  wanting them to love it. But love can’t grow in an atmosphere of fear and many people fear Shakespeare.

So my main task in an opening session, before anything has happened, but when my fellow readers may be  fearful or anxious, is to make it real and human, so that readers can see it is not a foreign language, or out of their league and  is going to be o.k.

Shakespeare writes about Kings, about courts, so first we have to  get past that strangeness and think what might be the equivalent to a King or a court  in our lives today. Boss, parent, family, boardroom, gang.  The Council. Government.

Here’s a play that begins in the middle of a state visit – I’ll say remember Mrs May and her husband Philip in China?

I  will ask my group to imagine a little mini-theatre, here in the room with us, in the middle of the table. We might want to decorate our table-top theatre with  posters made of blown-up photos of that China trip, or  we might want to make it your Auntie Sheila’s visit from Australia – she hasn’t seen your Mum for fifteen years…Let’s use family photos as a backdrop – here they are when they were little girls together in the Lake District. And say Auntie Sheila has brought all her friends and relations…  or  that’s getting a bit unreal, let’s make it LFC visiting the Boston Redsox for a summer training camp. All those hangers-on and old coaches coming along for the ride, all the wives and girlfriends and children, and Klopp’s Mum because she loves Boston.

I want to get some ideas of visits, of the fun and tensions of visits. And when I’ve got my theatre set up, with various possibilities, I’d let the first two actors walk in.

Here are two  men, one from the home family (business, country, team) and the other from the visiting team.  Who do you know who could play a good careful, intelligent civil servant – not a Yes Minister! More of  Jane Tennison visiting a distant New Zealand Police Force as part of a Royal Tour.

I’m like Whitman’s spider, casting out filaments, hoping one or more will catch somewhere and connect this old play with our lived reality.

Camillo is our man, the home player, Archidamus the visitor. They are perhaps parallel players – equally  matched in their home organisation, uncle with uncle, Chief Operating Officer with Chief Operating Officer.  Goalie with Goalie.  Cousin with Cousin. Let them walk on  – Enter Camillo and Archidamus. Anyone like to read?  No? ok, I’ll do them both. But I can’t do them with different voices.

One of you might take pity on me and help me read. A clue about reading  – use the punctuation! Head for a comma and then have a rest. And if you do read, and you realise you haven’t got a clue what you’ve just read… stop and call for help!

When I’m talking like this I’m just vamping, passing time, while waiting for someone to offer to help me with the reading. I know that someone in the group may be willing, and they just need a little time to get ready to offer to help. So I’ll keep talking for a while.  And then Lucy offers.

Oh thanks, Lucy, you’ll do some reading. Ok – I’ll be Camillo – you set off as Archidamus.

(I’ve set out the parts like this on purpose, because I am not sure if Lucy can read well, or will want to go on very far. Camillo is a big part – she might be stuck in him for ages. Giving Lucy a short part gives her a get-out, and she can always come back in as someone else once we get going. Or I might have said :we’ll each just do a couple of lines while we get going)

Arch-i-dame-us. Or maybe it’s Ark-i-damus?  Not sure. Vic, can you keep a list of the names – you’re a great pronouncer! We’re going to need to remember them.  So Lucy, when you are reading Archidamus – are you going to be Helen Mirren? Inspector Jane Tennison. Very capable, professional. And I’ll be David Morrissey.

If Lucy hadn’t offered, I would read both parts, but I’d moan about it a little,  how hard it is trying to  do both voices! so as to keep saying, indirectly, come on, someone, help me! And someone would, in the end, help me.

In an established group there would be no trouble with this – people love reading  once they’ve got used to it and will, in my experience, have a crack at anything.

 

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.

I’m going to stop it here, just as we get going, because I want to be sure that everyone is with me. Lucy, reading Archidamus with the actor Helen Mirren in mind might not, for all our laughing here, be very sure about the language of what she has just read.  Or she might be struggling. Others in the group may be troubled or feeling agitated.

I want to know how everyone is doing. I want to take the temperature.

What do you think so far, Mikey?

I mean this as a way of making eye contact with Mikey, the least able reader in the group, but Mikey takes it as an exam question.  He pulls a face. Agh, my mistake! But, surprising me, Mikey is ok.

Well, he’s like saying, you coming to ours later, isn’t he? He’s going to go round to his?

Spot on – that’s it, I reply.

Jean says, but isn’t Archidamus saying –  he’s going to be ashamed? What of? He says, ‘Wherein our entertainment shall shame us…’

Mikey, ‘but he’s already said there’s a difference , maybe he’s really wealthy and  they’ve been laying it on…’

Jean, ‘like when Trump comes here for his state visit and wants a golden carriage and everything?’

Kay, ‘This was it when  my cousins from Tobago came – you know they haven’t got much they are  from the north, and they just fish and take tourists fishing… they couldn’t see I was not wealthy, you know because I have a car and a washing machine and big TV…’

Mikey ‘Big TV, eh, Kay?

We’re off text now, but I’m happy. My group is reading Shakespeare. Very slowly, yes, but making it our own. We connect things in the play to things we know. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Does this piece fit with any piece of my experience?

Let’s start again I’ll say. Enter Camillo and Archidamus. We read again.

 

 

Mikey, what’s ‘sleepy drinks’?

Kay, Ovaltine, isn’t it?  Like hot milk drinks, get’s you to sleep.

No, it’s drugs, says Kev, speaking for the first time today.  He’s saying  we’ll have to drug you so you don’t notice how we don’t match up.

Me: Could you read it, Kev?

Kev: Ok – blows out a long stream of air –  here goes  – We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience, wow that’s a mouthful. Unintelligent of our insuffience may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us.

Kay: we can’t  give you back what you’ve given us.

Me – but that might not be true – this is court –  it would just be the way these people talk. It might be just politeness?

I say this because I want to throw an extra layer into the mix.  It may or may not be true. But I want to remember that these two men are not just men, family visitors from Australia or Tobago, but also courtiers.  I ask everyone to think of the protocols of China and Mrs May. It might be rude to say you could match your hosts hospitality.

But look, Mikey says, pointing. He says he means it. Archi – Archi –  he says…Believe me, I speak as my under … under …standing in…structs me and as mine honesty puts it to utt…utt…utterance.

We’re off. I think that’ll do for today.

 

 

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 1: Flying Upward

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Being a human isn’t easy,  even for a very lucky human like me, born in England in the twentieth century,  having had some education and not having to work at manual labour and having food and warmth and house insurance and many other luxuries…being human isn’t easy. So it’s not surprising that people often want to stay on the surface in Shared Reading and not go too deep into sorrow. We’ve got enough of it already!

Yet the fact remains that for most of us, even wealthy third-worlders, life is hard, as the Book of Job (6th century BCE) asserts:

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

The implication – look at the picture –  is, how should it be any other way? We  are mortal. yet we live with powerful consciousness that feels immortal.  There’s always death, pain, illness, breakages. Lots of the time, naturally, we want to  keep whistling and pretend it is not so.

Yet the very best experiences in Shared Reading often come when  we stop whistling and look up and listen to the crackle of the sparks and the silence behind  them. You  gotta go down to get up.

A Reader Leader  developing a group has a tough job on, partly coaxing non-readers towards literature in the first place, then keeping a balance between the wishes of some  members to ‘stay light’  (as one reader said to me, ‘we’ve got enough sorrow at home’ ) and the  task of creating the intense experience that comes from sharing the most complex, and often sad or troubling, texts.

In groups I’ve run I’m always aiming towards the best and greatest,  even if it might take a while to get there. For me that best and greatest is usually Shakespeare (other great writers are harder to share: I’ve only once read Dante and rarely Wordsworth, and never Milton in a normal weekly community Shared Reading group, though have read all of them on Saturday Dayschools. Would I try it?  Yes probably, depending on the stability of the group). When I say best and greatest, I think I am talking about levels of complexity. Which writers use up the greatest proportion of my brain and heart?

And  while there are many great Shakespeare works you might decide to start trying to talk your group into starting – I’ve read Hamlet, All’s Well , Macbeth and probably others that I’ve forgotten in Shared Reading groups – for me the play I love and would most like to share is The Winter’s Tale.

Starting The Winter’s Tale here is partly for myself – haven’t read it for a couple of years, so I’ll enjoy spending some time with it. But partly I offer my reading as an encouragement to anyone who can’t imagine reading a Shakespeare play in their Shared Reading group. And for readers who don’t run groups ( why don’t you?)  I hope it will simply be a meditative joy to read some complicating deep stuff very slowly.  Breathe! Breathe!

There’s an online text here, and you’ll find paper texts  in libraries and bookshops everywhere. We don’t need a text with  exceptional scholarship, though it’s fine if you have one.

How to start?

Talk them into it!  Start talking about it long before – in the middle of  run of short stories, or half way through Silas Marner. Sell it! Tell them how great it will be, and  remind them it won’t be like school.

Some tips before you begin:

  • If you can,  watch it in a couple of different productions (I still  like the 1981 BBC Shakespeare version directed by Jane Howell and starring the great Margaret Tyzack as Paulina.).
  • Close your ears, now The Reader Quality team, but I’m not a great fan of prep for Shared Reading – I like to find my reading live and without a safety net. Of course I’ve been falling off that highwire for decades so I’m used to landing with a splat. But here I’d definitely recommend you working on the text in advance if possible, because you want to feel reasonably confident.  Get a scene or so in advance of your group.
  • Make sure your group know this is going to take a while: we’re not going to rush. Treat it like a poem, let every word, every phrase and sentence have its right amount of time.
  • Be prepared to say, many times over, ‘I don’t know! I haven’t a clue!’
  • Let discussion wander all over the shop but keep coming back to the text and asking everyone to think again or try to imagine it.
  • To imagine it, build a little invisible theatre-in-the-round in the middle of your reading space and ask group members to visualise the play – try it with different sets, costumes, actors from the telly. Make it move!
  • Know the story and be able to tell it to entice your more reluctant group members towards the play – be ready with translations into modern-day life – who do we know who is like this? Have you ever seen a person do this?
  • Ask one of your group to keep a list of characters (and clues to who they are) which could be pinned up in the room as you read –  people new to Shakespeare will really struggle with the names in the this play.  (Polixenes= King of  Bohemia, boyhood friend of King Leontes / Mamillius= son of King Leontes, aged about 9 or 10. / Paulina= wife of courtier Antigonus, speaks her mind).
  • Beware the academic – no fancy talk. Your job as Reader Leader is to keep it real – this is not an old studied for A level play, it’s a piece of our heart.

Ah, run out of time now. But here is the opening scene, which I’ll pick up next time.

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.

CAMILLO

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!

ARCHIDAMUS

I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.

CAMILLO

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

ARCHIDAMUS

Would they else be content to die?

CAMILLO

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

ARCHIDAMUS

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.
Exeunt

 

After long night at Anfield, still slowly reading that Shakespeare Sonnet

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Moments before the game started, when all seemed well

LFC V Sevilla  was a long night on Wednesday, in the seocond half time slowed almost to a stop. This meant I didn’t go to bed til nearly midnight, and not going to bed til nearly midnight meant I didn’t wake up early yesterday. My writing time was eaten up by care-charmer sleep and though I did still have a little time before work, I wanted to go swimming. So it seems a  long time since I started reading Sonnet 44 by William Shakespeare.  Thus time expands and contracts, though the minute hand moves at the same speed.

Reading back over Wednesday’s post I see I’ve only really written about two lines, which is odd because in my memory I’d done quite a lot.  All this makes me think about time and depth.

The Gutenburg Elegies (1994) is  an early piece of thinking  about  the damage digital technology would wreak on the act of book reading, which Birketts posits as one of  the cornerstones of humanism. I think I’ve got my copy in work, so can’t quote from it directly but  one of the things Sven Birketts thinks about in the collection of essays is deep reading – the reading that took place when people only had one book – typically, The Bible. Birketts imagines a woman in a rural village reading that  book every week  for her entire life.  Not a wide reader, but a deep one. I remember Jeanette Winterson writing in Why Be Happy that her mother would read the Bible to  her every night and  when she got to the end they’d start again at the beginning. I’m not saying that was a good thing, but it was a deep thing and that  immersion, saturation,  in a rich and complex language helped create a language-rich inner life and make Jeanette a writer.

I wonder if less might be more? Does it matter if a whole Shared Reading session is taken up by the depth of a few lines?  I don’t think so. The important thing is find the places of depth and to learn to feel at ease there. Well, so I excuse my own slowness. So back to the poem:

SONNET LXIV (44)

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

I was saying that  it’s helpful to read the whole thing, get a sense of it, see where the punch is (‘That Time will come and take my love away.’) and then to look at the poem in terms of units of meaning – here  in clusters of two or four lines.

Other things to look at as you read and just note – line endings – what are they doing? punctuation – what is it telling us about  the geometry of the poem? Rhymes – see them? and if you had a red marker pen to pick out the key words,  killer words/thoughts – where would you mark?

All that kind of  noticing  goes on semi-unconsciously as I read the poem through and the depth of  my reading experience  partly depends on noticing as many of those  pieces. A good reading would mean that as much of the poem is brought into consciousness as possible.

Here I  pick up  at lines 3&4:

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

As in the opening couplet, Shakespeare is  thinking of  ferocious destruction. Why ferocious? ‘Down-razed’, ‘mortal rage’. Brass is a  strong metal  and it is subject to  mortal rage.. mortal meaning human or mortal meaning deathly –  it isn’t that we can smash brass up, but rather that brass is subject, like everything else, to destruction by time.

The next four lines hang together in terms of meaning though they retain the same structural pattern set out in lines 1-4: two pairs of couplets. But before I look at  that structure, I want to just get the rough meaning:

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;

This is the third ‘when’ of the sonnet –  I feel Shakespeare is finding examples of this destruction or change everywhere – he’s giving three examples but he might give three hundred. Much of the language is about fighting, this isn’t the universe melting into itself and becoming one.  Defaced, cost, outworn, down-razed, slave, rage, and now ‘hungry’, ‘advantage’ and ‘win’. We’re in a fight. Ocean and land cost each other – one can’t win unless the other loses. Whenever the is ‘store’  there is also ‘loss’,  wherever ‘loss’ , there is also ‘store’.  The semi-colon at the end of the line hints that another thought is growing out of the thought we have just experienced.

And here it is, marked by a full stop – we’ve reached the end of the bout.

When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.

A fourth ‘when’  – so that I am feeling, this seems a universal truth. It is everywhere, this ‘interchange of state’, one thing won only at the cost of another. But thinking back to the instances of destruction in the opening four lines,  it may not always be interchange. State itself may be  ‘confounded to decay’. ‘State’ is a brilliant word here, almost as if it  means ‘matter’,  but bigger than that, perhaps. Would ‘what is’  be an adequatetranslation? Not just stuff, but also being? Everything subject to Time’s undoing.

And ‘ruin’ – my god, that’s strong. Looking upon the universal tendency to ‘ruin’ (which physicists might later call entropy?) Shakespeare is taught to ‘ruminate’. There is a  stunning sound relation between ‘ruin’ and ‘ruminate’, to do with the long  sound ‘ru’- as if ruminate contains or holds ruin. You see it over and over. You can’t help but think. Oddly, after all that destruction, a calm descends.

Suddenly everything goes simple. There’s no violent language now. Just clear knowledge:

That Time will come and take my love away.

I’m going to read the last two lines tomorrow – so as not to rush them.

 

 

I am not a Parrot: Reading Shakespeare with Wilfred Bion

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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*

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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

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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?

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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.