Silas Marner Day 20: Dolly Winthrop working in a drug rehab…

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Delphinium in The Old English Garden at Calderstones

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 Dolly Winthrop has just been to visit Silas, urging him to attend church, and offering to look after him if he gets sick.

Silas said “Good-bye, and thank you kindly,” as he opened the door for Dolly, but he couldn’t help feeling relieved when she was gone– relieved that he might weave again and moan at his ease. Her simple view of life and its comforts, by which she had tried to cheer him, was only like a report of unknown objects, which his imagination could not fashion. The fountains of human love and of faith in a divine love had not yet been unlocked, and his soul was still the shrunken rivulet, with only this difference, that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction.

Yesterday I met a man who told me he loved reading but only read business or psychology books – like  lots of people, I imagine, he  might believe that you get reality or truth in non-fiction, and that fiction doesn’t contain the  kind of human info you get in a psychology book.  You need to read Dombey and Son, I told him. That’s business and psychology in one! I was struck by that thought when reading this little paragraph. The idea that we can only understand things we already in some sense know is an important one for anyone trying to chance behaviour in a business – or any other – setting.

Dolly’s well-meant suggestions, indeed her whole way of approaching Silas, ‘was only like a report of unknown objects, which his imagination could not fashion’. He is not ready or able to hear the message.  What would need to be in place for the message to get through?

The fountains of human love and of faith in a divine love had not yet been unlocked, and his soul was still the shrunken rivulet, with only this difference, that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction.

Silas needs to feel something  – love and faith – he is blocked up. He can’t grow or learn.

Is there a piece of psychology here, could you use this information in a business context? I think so, though it is expensive advice. It means you have to treat people as people not as ‘resources’. it means you have to find ways to unlock trust and to assist the conditions for growth. If Dolly was Silas’ manager…

But for the time being, she is not… and Silas  keeps Christmas alone and does not join the village at church. He remains alone, shrunken, frozen.

Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim.

Sad and interesting how different bits of yourself might come and go over the course of a life. Silas ‘s loving, connected human self is now forgotten ‘even to himself.’

Chapter 11  picks up with Nancy Lammeter at the Cass New Year Christmas party. I’m going to rush through some of these pages where the Miss Lammeters arrive, and  get their party dresses on and  do their hair…and Godfrey Cass dances with Nancy and tries to forget his worries… I’m just rushing through this chapter – though I am sure if I was reading it in a group we’d stop and talk about parties and dancing and getting ready and being Godfrey and trying to forget what you are worried about… but even so, this needs to be a fast chapter, and I’d have a good strong poem  with me this week to give us some meat in case not much of interest came up in the story… and where I am heading is the next chapter, chapter 12. Suddenly the story turns a terrifying corner:

While Godfrey Cass was taking draughts of forgetfulness from the sweet presence of Nancy, willingly losing all sense of that hidden bond which at other moments galled and fretted him so as to mingle irritation with the very sunshine, Godfrey’s wife was walking with slow uncertain steps through the snow-covered Raveloe lanes, carrying her child in her arms…

… she would mar his pleasure: she would go in her dingy rags, with her faded face, once as handsome as the best, with her little child that had its father’s hair and eyes, and disclose herself to the Squire as his eldest son’s wife. It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable. Molly knew that the cause of her dingy rags was not her husband’s neglect, but the demon Opium to whom she was enslaved, body and soul, except in the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child. She knew this well; and yet, in the moments of wretched unbenumbed consciousness, the sense of her want and degradation transformed itself continually into bitterness towards Godfrey. He was well off; and if she had her rights she would be well off too. Molly knew that the cause of her dingy rags was not her husband’s neglect, but the demon Opium to whom she was enslaved, body and soul, except in the lingering mother’s tenderness that refused to give him her hungry child. She knew this well; and yet, in the moments of wretched unbenumbed consciousness, the sense of her want and degradation transformed itself continually into bitterness towards Godfrey.

‘It is seldom that the miserable can help regarding their misery as a wrong inflicted by those who are less miserable.’  Here’s an interesting thought, and the place I would want to stop to initiate a conversation with my group. Why do humans  tend to do this – can we imagine modern-day examples ,can we translate into things we have seen or experienced ourselves? Reading this novel in a woman’s prison you couldn’t help but be aware of the fact that women will be thinking about their own children, or the children of women they know. Do you keep your child free of  the fallout of your addiction? How  does a  mother’s ‘tenderness’ manifest itself in a life where money must be spent on drugs and the child is hungry?

I notice here that Molly’s bitter hatred of Godfrey is most profound when she is ‘unbenumbed’, this is the point at  which she most feels her ‘sense of her want and degradation’ but when she most feels those terrible feelings, she turns her  current of feeling into anger towards Cass. It’s quite understandable – you can  imagine doing it. Yet in terms of taking responsibility(George Eliot is going to be remorseless with everybody about  taking responsibility)…Molly’s  only chance is that she stops  directing that anger at Godfrey and turns it towards her relation to opium.  The twelve step programme requires the taking of responsibility.

I’d want to talk about ways in which  many of us have addictive behaviours, and  the shifty moral ground that goes with the inability to be straightforward because  of the those behaviours. I’d talk about my own love of cake as a way of opening the area without making it too seriously frightening, but knowing too, that anyone in the group who is living with an addiction would recognise the possibility of freely speaking about  it. It’s important that we don’t judge Molly anymore than the text does. So go back to the text. We have to stand alongside her sense of ‘want and  degradation’ and remember too how degraded it is to be Godfrey Cass.  I suddenly think – Molly exists in the same universe as Dolly Winthrop!  Could Doly help Molly? If only she was acounsellor in a drug rehab…And I am wondering if molly is not simply a more extreme form of Silas, blocked up, trapped, insectt-like, unable to be or become…

But time is up. More tomorrow.

Salt & Grit: ‘Beyond the End’ with Denise Levertov

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Acer in the Japanese Garden at Calderstones

Today I’m continuing the reading I started two days ago, of Denise Levertov’s ‘Beyond The End’

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I’d got to the start of stanza four. Worth reading the whole poem, aloud,  again, to get ourselves back into it.

We need to look at the word ‘it’ now.  does this mysterious pronoun stand for ‘choice’? As in: ‘In nature there’s no choice…but we seem almost to have it’.

Or does the ‘it’ stand for something as yet unnamed? Just read the poem again and  notice all the times this word appears. is ‘it’ energy? Levertov  says so:  ‘It’s energy’.  The girls buying stuff in shops enjoy ‘it’ : ‘it’s their festival.’

By now I understand ‘it’ is not choice.  The pronoun stands for the thing you may choose to find, whatever it is, so it, as I am reading now = energy, festival, a kind of light, an experience as in laughter. Now Denise closes in a little, examining it more closely:

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

We turn back to nature – where, as we know from the opening ‘there’s no choice’ but there is a kind of rhythmic grace, the ‘humble rhythms’ of seasons and planetary movements. Humans aren’t like that. So

it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:

The brilliant analogy of salt – hardly  there, but when there making all the difference. Yet I now notice the word ‘barely’, ‘it’s barely’  gets a whole line to itself, makes barely a big thing, and yet look, look, it is set alongside ‘a constant’. It is barely but it is ‘a constant. Like salt’. Is this the moment of choice: ‘Take it or leave it?’

We decide?  We go towards it or away from it?

This is  the essential  choice of human beings: yes or no. Towards or away. Do you want it or do you want to gt away from it? It is  perhaps the  ultimate primal movement, and may have begun for us way back before  we were monkeys, before we were fish, way back at the beginning when we were little one-celled specks going towards or away from other specks which would turn out to be food for us or eaters of us.

The moment of choice – towards or away, yes or no –  is a moment like a speck of salt. So insignificant you might not notice it all. But it is something powerful. Taste it.

The next stanza is the longest and develops a strong rhythm, as if of movement towards a certainty. She’s understanding more about ‘it’ as the poem  emerges.

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

Levertov returns her attention to work (we’d seen earlier her thought ‘Some have it, they force it — with work or laughter ‘, which  had been passed by as she gave her attention to the girls  in the shops) and begins with the quotation, as if in very speedy thought, skimming along  ‘the ‘hewers of wood’ & so on’ . It’s biblical but I don’t remember it, so I look it up. They are slaves or prisoners, those hewers of wood, labourers who might have been killed. Hard-working labourers they are, which leads her thought as it were by a fast, vertical jumping, to another kind of worker, labourers may or may not have it while labouring but

every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work

Yes, you can see it there in skilled complex making ( she must be thinking of poetry as a craft  as well as wheelwrighting, sewing) but the  ‘every damn’ dismisses them too – of course it’s there! –  but is  work itself that does it? Nope.

it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’)

A  lovely thing happens here, the felicity of language. Repose – the opposite of work – may also contain it, and as the word is written  or as we meet it, reading, a kind of rest comes, the word brings it along.  During that moment of rest, the word ‘repose’ morphs by sound pattern into ‘response, and then into respond.  Then, at this key moment, we get another quotation.

(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’)

I didn’t recognise this – it’s the poet Wallace Stevens – so I looked it up.  The quote is famous, and appears out of context in hundreds of places, but the link I’ve provided takes you to a page where there is a tiny bit of context.  I don’t know if it helps.

But I regroup by re-reading. The key for me now is what feels that lucky strike of  ‘repose/response’, and in illustration of her own point, it does seem to me that this is what’s happened here. Denise had a choice at the word ‘repose’, to go in various directions. Her mind, or the poetic genius in her, or sound patterns, or whatever you want to call ‘it’, offered a link to ‘response’: she took it.  It’s a moment of salt on the tongue. She took  it, I see, with the word ‘ ‘maybe’  – lovely provisional word that allows a form of play, experiment. She continues:

maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

How different is  ‘a gritting of teeth’ to the moment that  began the unfolding of this thought, ‘repose’. But they are ‘maybe’ both ways in which our salt might work on us.

Finally, at the end,  even the ‘it’ pronoun has disappeared, like the grain of salt, tasted and dissolved. So that the poem finishes with a sort of  ambition statement,  like a vision:

to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

There are a lot of echoes in my head as I let these last lines roll around in that little chamber, but I can’t quite identify them – Hamlet, the choice of ‘to be’ rather than ‘not to be’, Tennyson’s Ulysses looking at all experience and everything ‘ever more about to be’ – but the rhythm is reminding me of something else I can’t quite remember… or is it the end of ‘Ulysses’?

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

But that’s an aside, don’t let me be distracted. We have choice,  the poem makes me feel, and that choice is about extending beyond whatever ends. I do not know if  this includes death – for me, it would seem not to… for Levertov? I don’t yet know her well enough to know.

I do think – though it may just be my own mind –  that there is an echo of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’  in the poem, and tomorrow I may start to read it.

But I want to honour Levertov’s poem by finishing with those last three  strikes of hers:

to begin, to be, to defy.

This is human work and our task. To begin, to make a start.  To be – which seems to me to be about continuing that start. But more than continuing, carrying on, it is, as the last word has it, to ‘defy’. To defy the end. To fight it.  We’ve got to be talking about death and kinds of small death here – the failure of a poem or any piece of creative work,  the moment when  fear or lethargy or laziness overcomes any desire, ‘whatever ends’. The human task is find a way of being in that dimension where things don’t end. Moving towards it. Not away from. That takes guts as well as desire, instinct, because the move towards runs out. Then you need  ‘the gritting of teeth.’

Wonderful. I’m gritting, thank you Denise.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Snakes ‘n’ Shopping in Denise Levertov

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Cherries ripening to provide wassail-fest for the starlings as soon as I leave the garden

Today I’m continuing the reading I started yesterday, of Denise Levertov’s ‘Beyond The End’

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

Yesterday I’d got up to the word ‘quicken’ and had to stop writing at the point where I was  wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

Do you ever feel you haven’t got it? The energy to shine brightly, to respond, to put something forth? Of course when you overcome the inertia that naturally slows us , sometimes the energy flows even more strongly. Why/how does it come and go? What is it? Is it physical? Or perhaps how is it physical when it is also about  spirit or something? Thinking now of  my recent reading in Silas Marner – if we read it as an energy map, marking on coloured markers how much energy Silas is putting forth…you’d see the glorious golden light in him as he plays with his coins at night. And you’d mark in the dimness, almost extinguished energy once he has been robbed. And Dolly Winthrop – up at 4.30am to use her energy up every day!

To a reader not used to the  rhythms of a Shared Reading group, this paragraph above will seem like an aside and a chatty drifting away from the text. And necessarily, because we do this, one of our Reader Leader phrases has to be ‘ back to the text!’ But these asides or diversions are not really off the point. They are just very, very slo-mo reading. They are giving people in the group an opportunity to think. that opportunity will often times be taken up by someone using up airspace, or by chat or a bit of biography… but the space and leeway such inconsequential chat creates will also sometimes become a place where we can begin to  become aware of powerful thoughts.

When we read a word like ‘energy’ there are a lot of possible thoughts which might cross your mind. Reading is not a one-dimensional stick-line  – it’s a bundle of  live snakes. We want to know what they all are. In an experienced reading brain, many of those thoughts (the live snakes)  will be firing with word-related random association. Energy =  gas bills, neurones, electricity, red giants, meditation, amphetamines, sport and Whitman’s spider….though we won’t always be conscious of these thoughts, they will be passing through us. Seems to feel good to slow things down and get as many of them out  and named as we can. This is what we call consciousness. The more there is of it, the better. But back to the text.

So, like Whitman’s spider,  Denise Levertov’s energy is about extending out of your self. And the language here asks whether, like poetry, life too isn’t a bundle of live snakes, rather than a fixed line from a-b. Energy, she says

not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken,

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

If energy were energy only  to ‘go on living’ we’d be in world of straight lines, of keeping going. Silas  keeps going, he goes on living, but he is sort-of dead after Lantern Yard – like a spider! – he mechanically weaves only his linen. The unpredictable disfunctionality of his linen then producing gold coins (with faces) which he begins to love (what capacity for love then!) which makes his mechanical producing of the cloth only a means to an end – he is no longer pure machine-insect-man. He is quickened by love!

But once  he has been robbed of his gold he falls back into energy-less despair. Like Thomas Hardy , in The Going, he might say

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

There are types of death in life.  Energy of a mechanical  sort is required. But  for live energy, for extension, for going beyond, we need something else. Levertov uses that marvellous livening verb, ‘quicken’ to make us think ‘new life’.

I’m looking back at the title, ‘Beyond The End’ which I had initially thought was about death (still do think that )but now I also think it is about ends – any ends. As in wherever things are currently ended. How things are. What you’ve ended up with or at. And it is more about ‘beyond’ than ‘end’.

You get that lovely little run of words: ‘to quicken, to activate: extend:’ which is about the way humans can go beyond themselves, touched, brought to life. Things get bigger. We become more. I’m really enjoying this. Now Denise looks for it – and what is interesting here is that she casts about, in the chatty, discursive way we might do in Shared Reading, as if she is asking herself – what is this thing I am talking about? How can I make it real? Who has got it, this extending, this going beyond?

Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

Work, yes, and we’ll come back to that. Laughter yes, how you can get beyond yourself and into a different place through laughter and finally ‘ the act of buying, if that’s/all they can lay their hands on -‘. It’s as if she is pulled up sharp by this thought and allows it to blossom for a generous moment (given that this thought started with ‘even’, as if we had reached the pits), loving seeing the girls loving the stuff in shops. Levertov’s generous looking for good (unlike my own grumpy anti-materialism) turns the girls’ feeling into something beyond the material, into something ancient and humanly long-standing : ‘It’s their festival,/ ring game, wassail, mystery.’

You can stay with each of those words and let them bloom across the table – old words for old ways of getting out of yourself.  But time is up…

Reading at this slow rate, each poem from ‘The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov’ is going to take me a week. Hurray.

 

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Denise Levertov: ‘Beyond The End’ plus spiders and live snakes

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Dreaming Spires: Echiums and Foxgloves at Ness Gardens

Today I’m starting a new series of readings from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (ed.  Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey,  pub. New Directions 2013). Many thanks to New Directions for permission to reprint the poems here, see below for formal acknowledgement.

I will  be aiming to read about ten poems over the coming year. Unless they are very short, I’m not likely to finish a whole poem in one morning’s reading, so they may extend over a  few days. They will all be searchable under ‘Denise Levertov’.

In each case, I’ll be reading as if preparing for a Shared Reading group – first law, know how to read the poem as yourself. A poem like today’s might well benefit from being the only thing on the menu – it’s a rich poem.

The first poem is from  the 1957 collection, Here and Now.

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I begin by reading the whole poem through, aloud.

But before that, how did I choose it? Well, I have this lovely anthology of The Collected Poems from New Directions, and one Saturday afternoon I  set myself down the hammock in the back garden and started reading. I read them quite quickly, looking to be in some way touched, arrested by something (I don’t define that to myself at all). If that happens, without going in it,  then I make a little note ‘come back to this…’

In such a first-glance-reading I’m looking for a feeling that matches something I’ve got in me. Or maybe in some way, the poem surprises me. Either way,  fair to say, I chose this poem because of my felt response to it and that’s how I’ll be choosing all these poems in the Levertov series.

Now I read again, trying to see my own reactions as well as simply having them. Looking back, I feel my response really began at the word ‘energy’. Later it was deepened by ‘activate’ and ‘response’. Such thoughts things matter very much to me and I am interested in thinking about them. Wordsworth describes the human mind as ‘creator and receiver both’ and it feels like that to me, and I like trying to think about my mind. This seems about how life works.

But, going back to the poem and rereading, and noting my responses: I feel adrift and am also thinking right away, and that adrift is not quite knowing where I am in the first stanza because of the bit in brackets (not just available death). I  decide to go back to the start – again – and start again.  So, just to note, that in this poem which is new to me, I’ve read it three, four times before I even start trying to understand what it is, what my responses are.  You go back to retest the ground, to re-feel your feelings, to stumble into a sense of the sense.

I am back at the beginning and wondering about the inverted commas around ‘nature’, as if that word too, is uncertain, is not definite.

I’m asking myself first, what is ‘nature’ and how does that connect to ‘human nature’ – because this poem is about being human (I know that because of reading to the end several times).

The poem begins (‘In ‘nature’ there’s no choice’) at the point where Denise  realises there is a difference between our human nature and the wider nature. The brackets mean nature-as-we-think-of-it-as-not-us…green stuff, mountains, sky, bears.  This gets me thinking  – isn’t everything about human nature natural? Still, I continue with her and her distinction: other forms of nature seem to be ‘as they are’, from one end of the universe to the other:

flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are.

Flowers, touched by wind move but not of their own will, sun and moon seem static in the skies, with no decision in their placing. They are ‘as they are’. But not us, we ‘seem to have’ choice. Now to the difficult bracketed bit  ‘not just available death’ – does that mean: choice to be here or not, availability of suicide? That is the big choice, as Hamlet realised. Available death, too, in our ability to choose to kill each other? Flowers don’t have such choices.

Big as this is the choice is not only about death, as the next stanza tells us…

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

Why a spider’s thread? I remember Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ and wonder if Denise Levertov has remembered it, too? I know from my complete skimming read-through of the entire book that she often  remembers and quotes or partially echoes other poets in her work. I look up the Whitman.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

The filament launched forth by Whitman’s spider is very like the ‘energy’ Levertov  is thinking of here. I’m wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

In a Shared Reading group, I’d be stopping here to initiate a conversation about energy.

But oh dear. Time’s up – that went fast. More  on energy tomorrow.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

 

 

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

Is it love? Yes it is.

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Red Clematis in a pot in the back garden

I wanted to write today about A.S. J. Tessimond’s quietly self-effacing poem, ‘Not Love, Perhaps’.

I couldn’t write yesterday, despite the day beginning very early  in a hotel room in a Norwich Premier Inn: I needed to do some other work things and sacrificed my reading and writing hour to expediency.

In the afternoon, not wanting to skip a day (got to keep practising) I started writing  this post on a cross-country Norwich-Liverpool train which made 24 stops (including  places I don’t usually get to travel through  like Ely, Grantham, Alfreton, Sheffield, Irlam and Widnes). The 5+ hour, journey, with  no wifi and no electric plug felt like the olden days of the 1980s and in the end, I stopped writing to enjoy the sight of England, and to have a long read of my book and a little sleep, and my salad box lunch and some Norwich raspberries and to think about Norwich and the  people I had met  all too briefly at the International Literature Showcase. This is what train journeys used to be like!

I was at the Showcase to give a talk about the work of The Reader and to listen to other people describe their work spreading the word. Terrific to start the day with a performance of her poetry by Sophia Walker, a woman of verbal felicity and punch, lit by rhythms of hip hop and Shakespeare.

I went on to read from Bleak House – the visit of Esther and co to the brickmaker’s cottage with grim Mrs Pardiggle, the evangelical missionary to the poor. It was good afterwards to be in conversation with a few people who said how relevant and fresh the Dickens was, how appalling to feel much is still the same.

Pop Up Projects were on next, and founder Dylan Calder gave a compelling account of the  change Pop Up is bringing about. I very much liked the idea that authors in the Schools Book Festival are not there to sell books nor simply read them but to talk to children about how they create books. If creativity is the answer to an over-developed western economy (and I say it is) then we have got to learn how to help children believe in and practice their own powers of creativity.

Before heading to the Cathedral Hostry – amazing HLF funded building – where the Showcase was taking place, I walked round Norwich between 8.00 and 9.00, a beautiful hot, quiet morning. This was my first visit this ancient Cathedral City, with some lovely things.

norwich

Plus, less lovely, and more standard,  before 9.00 am, plenty of people sleeping in shop doorways. About as many as I’d see in Liverpool, I think. One was a young clear-faced young man, pink-cheeked, blond-curled like a cherub, leaning against a wall sleeping upright, with his feet swathed in a bin bag. He looked under twenty. What are we going to do about that? Dickens, thou should’st be living at this hour, as Wordsworth said of Milton.

But  to the poem, which I read earlier in the week with a small group of people who work in the Social Enterprise and Storybarn teams at The Reader; ‘Not Love Perhaps’ by A.S.J. Tessimond. You’ll find the poem here.

Is it love? we asked, or is it a kind of friendship? Or is friendship a kind of love? We spoke of the tricky Hollywood version of love, ‘love that lays down it’s life…’  I’m not sure love would, said one of the group members, lay down his life for me. Oh yes, one of the group’s men asserted, especially if  there was a baby. Ok, so maybe that self-sacrificing love does exist, some of us conceded, but this is not  that:

Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,

Yesterday at ILS,  when I read Bleak House, I asked the audience to use their imaginations to make themselves become members of  Shared Reading groups – made-up personas, but made-up from real elements of many real people I have met.

The man who has had a  severe breakdown, the woman whose children have abandoned her, the person who lost their job, someone living with a severe and chronic illness, the recovering addict, the woman who has been a victim of violent abuse since childhood… imagine you are that person, I asked, sketching personas. Choose a character, be Bill, be Susan and imagine them,  think their thoughts, feel their feelings as I read.

I didn’t ask my audience to speak aloud so I don’t know if they did adopt any of those fictionalised personas.  But reading the scene in the brickmaker’s cottage, I stopped at the moment where Jenny  covers her bruised black eye so her baby might not see it:

…as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire, to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before, that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill-treatment, from the poor little child.

Imagine you are Susan, I asked my colleagues in the audience, badly abused since early childhood. Read this as Susan, whose children were taken into Care to protect them from  the same abuse. Imagine reading those words as Susan and remembering the number of times your children have seen you bruised and how you didn’t want them to see you…

That moment in a shared reading group where Susan may or not choose to share her experience aloud is one of the key contributors to the connective power of the experience. People are feeling,  sometimes talking, sharing, sometimes in silence, the same deep experiences. This is not love, perhaps…

But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:
Something perhaps especially our own.
A need at times to be together and talk
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places
And meet more easily nightmare faces.

In this week’s staff reading group we talked about the fact that having a good social network helps people survive illness, trauma. And yesterday morning  at my early breakfast in a Norwich café, I read that by 2030, 3m. people will be suffering  chronic loneliness in the UK. We need real time face to face networks in which people can relearn their close human connections.

There’s nothing forced here. I spoke about the fact that people do not have to speak in Shared Reading. In one of my early groups one woman did not speak, making no  verbal contribution to the group, for over a year.  We offer an opportunity and then we wait. And if we wait without pressure, the possibility of becoming an active speaker will, more often than not, come: this poem gives words to the necessity behind that common occurance.

A need at times of each for each
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

In our staff group we stayed on the thought of ‘each for each’ for a while, noticing how it was both personal and yet bigger than personal. Is the word ‘person’ elided? Does ‘each for each’  imply  ‘a need at times of each (person ) for each (other person)’ Or is ‘each of us’ implied? We didn’t stop to notice of those little bits of gristly connective ‘of each for each’  the of and the for doing something extraordinary in a kind of giving and taking – (and is there an echo of  Marx’s famous slogan there? It seems to echo so in my mind.)

The need, poet concludes is ‘direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech’. We considered the physicality of throat and tongue – the way they must move muscularly to get language up and out. Do they need speech, rather than create it?

Is our need for each other in that sense primal, unignorable? And if so, what are we going to do about the boy on the street outside the bank in Norwich, and what about the 3 million lonely people?

Tessimond’s poem or Bleak House, shared with another reader, can help.

The Reader seeks volunteers to run Shared Reading groups. Our Read to Lead programme will help you get started.

For some Reader Leaders, Read to Lead courses and support are paid for by their place of  work, others pay out of their own money, and some, who might be very good at it,  don’t have an employer and can’t afford to pay for themselves.

We want to develop 20,000 groups over the next five years.If you can’t run a Shared Reading group yourself, you might consider making a donation which would help someone else to do so.

It costs £900 to train and support a volunteer for two years. Contact me if you can help.

On The Darkling Plain with Matthew Arnold

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The Old Bath and  Clematis ‘Warszawska Nike’

This morning, continuing my journey through The Oxford Book of English Verse, I stopped at Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I’ve not read for five, ten, maybe more, years. When I saw it, I thought, another angry poem. Clearly, I am  looking for them.

But most angry poems won’t do for me – they are trite, warmongering, simple. I want to experience complexity of thought, not simple anger: I’ve got enough of that. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to Silas Marner for that reason: I love the way George Eliot unpicks complex human situations and lays all the parts out for us to see and feel and understand.

And, looking again, a second ‘but’: it is not an angry poem. It is sad, and withdrawing from the world. Read it aloud, dear readers, and read it slowly.

Dover Beach
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Here we have two people in a room overlooking the Channel on what seems a lovely summer night.  One says to the other, ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!’ but as they speak they note something else:

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Have you heard that slow, turning cadence ?  There’s a rhythm of sadness to it for me when I walk on the beach at a full tide, but I don’t know how much that is connected to this poem – did I learn to think that about beach-noise froim Matthew Arnold? Or maybe that ‘note of sadness’ existed quite aside from the poem?

As I remember Matthew Arnold,  Matthew Arnold, hearing the same sound, remembers Sophocles:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

I don’t know what in Sophocles Matthew Arnold is referring to. I could look it up and might do so, in case someone in my reading group wanted to know.  But more likely, someone in my reading group might well have never have heard of Sophocles.  Never perhaps heard of the Aegean.  So I might want to be ready to ask if anyone in the group  could explain those words to the everyone else. And if I had looked up the reference, I’d keep it in reserve, until asked. And then I’d want to say ‘I looked it up.’ Why?

Because facts are nothing in literature, in Shared Reading. This is not chemistry, this is not engineering. Facts often get in the way, and give inexperienced readers the feeling that there is stuff to learn and that  they are ignorant. That feeling stops people engaging with their whole hearts with the poem itself.  Be kind but bold, we say at The Reader. Bold enough to bring a poem like ‘Dover Beach’ to your reading group, kind enough to improvise ways to share its content with other people. You don’t need the facts to understand the poem, because Matthew Arnold here gives us everything we need to know:

Someone, somewhere else, long ago heard this and thought he heard  the ebb and flow of human misery. Now we have the same experience, with a different thought,  in a different time and place.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

This stanza is particular to Matthew Arnold’s own time and place, and a group would have to stop here and think about what ‘the sea of faith’ might have meant to the writer. As a Reader Leader, I might also want to know something, some fact, about that – though I might not need to  talk about it.

Some facts: The poem was written in 1851. The literal truth of Christianity was under attack from liberal intellectual thinkers and from science – Lyell’s Principles of Geology had been around since the 1830s, and the argument for the world not having been created in six days was beginning to be widely accepted. Origin of Species was published in 1859. The French naturalist Lamarck  had introduced the idea that there might be a connection between humans and orangutans… and George Eliot writing under her own original name,  Marian Evans, had published her translation of Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which made Jesus a historical rather than a  Biblical figurein 1846.  Even as he wrote, the status of  Christianity, which might have seemed so permanent, was under attack, was changing, was perhaps, to use Matthew Arnold’s word, ‘withdrawing’.

But it is not the fact I am interested in here. It’s the feeling of the poetry:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

What do I feel? Loss, loss, loss. If things in the world are being lost, stripped away, if old beliefs and comforts are removed… what’s left? Well, says Matthew Arnold, there is still personal love. There is still us, in this room.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But that sense of  a private relationship being able to carry you through… I don’t know, it seems a genuine plea, for a genuine love, yet  it feels overwhelmed by what is outside the window. But it remains true that when the world explodes for me, close family and close friends hold it/me together. So, yes, a personal love can and does make a difference. But the world, oh, the world…

Of course, the worse it is out there, the more need we have of something, someone, in here. We might talk about love, but we’d also want to talk about friendship – and a poem I might want to go on to with my group would be  Tessimond’s ‘Not Love, Perhaps’. I’ll read it tomorrow.

But to go back to the poem: what’s happening between these two at the window is undermined by what is out there, and so we come to some of the most painful lines in poetry:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

When I am in the line ‘like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new’  I believe it.

And even as I rise to the surface and come out of the line, I do believe in such moments of possibility.  I have to. But when I stop to give a couple of quid to the homeless girl outside the British Library, her face a mass of sores, she’s a glue-sniffer, she looks sixty and is probably twenty-three, her eyes are pleading and lost, she’s come from Care and needs to come and live in my house and be cared for by me but  when I stop there and try to imagine the cost I  personally cannot pay to fix this girl’s life, then I feel  that neither I nor world really does have the possibility of  ‘joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’. I give her fiver and hurry away, knowing she’ll spend it on drugs. As I head to Euston for the 19.07, I’m asking myself and not for the first time, should I leave The Reader and go to work in a homeless charity?

I move, as the lines do, between those two sets of feelings.

I think of the people, families, children, dying in  Grenfell Tower. The people who died or were injured on Westminster Bridge, at Borough Market, at Finsbury Park Mosque. I think of the power of personal feelings of failure or disconnect, and the  effect of those broken feelings on the world. People do bad things. On a different level, I think of  the disjunct between personal love and public responsibility. People do bad things.

I imagine myself making  bad decisions and ask myself, what would make a difference to the way I made those decisions?

And I end, in 2017,  where Matthew Arnold ended, in 1851:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Hard reading today. Thank you for sticking with me.
For a different take on Dover Beach, the poet Carol Rumens offers her reading of this great poem here.