The Winter’s Tale Day 5: Shaking Up The Kaleidoscope

kaleidoscope
Shifting possibilities of the Kaleidoscope

I starting reading Shakespeare here  (i) because I miss reading Shakespeare (ii) as a way of reminding people who run Shared Reading groups that Shakespeare can and should be read  and (iii) to celebrate ten years of the Shakespeare Reading group which  currently meets in Birkenhead library.

I started reading The Winter’s Tale because it is  my favourite play. Why? Because it is the story of a life that for no accountable reason  gets broken – breaks itself – and then has wait a  long time to get going again. This is my subject matter, a very real, very normal sort of  story, and I imagine lots of people will recognise its  outline.

Find a full text here. Search  for previous posting using the search box to the right and enter The Winter’s Tale.

We’re at scene ii.

SCENE II. A room of state in the same.

Enter LEONTES, HERMIONE, MAMILLIUS, POLIXENES, CAMILLO, and Attendants

In a group, I’d begin by a longish read through, which we’re going to miss here, which is a shame.  There’s a great rhythm to this scene, and you need to feel some of that, the back and forth between people, the switching from formal to informal, from State Occasion to personal aside.

You might want to have a video/online performance to  watch too. I’d save that for after you’ve done your own reading: I want my readers to know they can make decisions about how to put on the play, how to realise its meaning,  before accepting someone else’s version. Though, having done that, it’s great to see how other minds do animate the words. The Winter’s Tale is on at Shakespeare’s Globe later this year : plan your trip!

So explain to your group that you are not going to stop every minute, that there’ll be things which are incomprehensible, that we’re just trying to get the drift, that we’ll come back.  Your main job is to reassure people that they are going to enjoy it once it gets going, and they don’t need to worry.

I’d read down to the moment Polixenes agrees to stay (sorry this text has no line numbers!):

POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess.

This gives us a good run and chance to feel the rhythm even if  we don’t get a lot of the meaning. We can go back.

I’d notice the stage directions – it is a room of state. This is perhaps to be set up as a state occasion. I’d ask my group to think about ways to make a set – we’ll keep coming back to this, because I want to imagine we are putting this play on, and that helps at times when we are trying to understand that a character is saying – so we’ll talk about  using a  traditional ‘shakespearian’ style or modern, and perhaps about what any of us might have experienced that is a bit like a state visit. When Aunty Barbara came over from Australia…planned for years, and too long in the happening.

Finally, I’d want to do something about the names – they are particularly off-putting in this play –  so maybe make a list to keep track of who is who and  what they are to anybody else. You won’t need it for a more than a couple of weeks.

Polixenes, then is the visiting King, the King of Bohemia.  When he begins he sets off in the most pompous language of the play:

POLIXENES
Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt: and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

Your books will have notes. It’s a good idea to use them – sparingly. But someone will be able to read the note and tell everyone that ‘the watery star’ means the moon. Take your time here, in Polixenes opening lines, because you want everyone in the group to think : this was incomprehensible but actually I do understand it. Use the punctuation as clues for stopping/units of possible sense.

Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen:

literally translate: nine changes of the moon have been noted by  shepherds since I left my country:

time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt:

I could spend  nine months saying ‘thank you’ but still leave in your debt (I can’t thank you enough! a group member might offer)

and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.

‘Cipher’ is interesting (look it up here) and this is a joke about zeros on the end of numbers,  weirdly, zero makes  the number more.  But I also find the idea of nothing or zero  a bit worrying too. Is he nothing?  Can anyone be nothing? But that is a fleeting thought, before we are on to the rest of the meaning and the ordinary… Leontes responding rather tersely, as if interrupting,

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

I might use this moment to try to get some play with the words, to see how  timing matters, how tone of voice. I might ask group members to read with different speeds of cross-over between the two actors, asking Leontes to respond kindly, aggressively, casually, carelessly, formally.

I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

All these possibilities  must be available to us as we read. And it is that, the tumbling kaleidoscope of possibility that makes reading Shakespeare so rewarding. Thousands of possibilities and the opportunity to use your mind on as many of them as you like.

Silas Marner Day 39: Truth, Lies & Life before psychology was invented

muscari
Muscari March 18

The women in Silas Marner  (full text here) are humans who struggle under the  difficulty of not being emancipated in different ways: Eppie’s drug-addicted mother Molly, the scrub-polish-make-bake-and-run-your-household-like-an-army Dolly Winthrop, and here, Nancy Lammeter. She is somewhat educated, but for no purpose, and having  no children, her days are emptier than  her childed sister’s, her  consciousness left to ruminate on  what seem at first to be the smallest  and least significant of things.

What I get interested in here, as I read about Nancy, is how the author, George Eliot, an exceptionally well (self) educated woman of immense intelligence imagines the movements of the human mind. This is psychology before William James, before Freud.

Watch the way we go in and in:

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled.

Nancy’s like a  woman in prison, imprisoned in her life. There is no stimulation, only repetitive reflection on her ‘remembered experience’. But what else is there for her mind to dwell on? Having little external stimulation, she must live ‘inwardly’. The only subject matter of  depth she has is her relationship with her husband.  At First we have no idea what Nancy is going to think about.  Only very gladually do we  dig down the the realiy of what is bothering her.

She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable.

She won’t say – Nancy won’t think, won’t put into words – whatever it is we are talking about. we’re going roundthe houses.

At the same time as George Eliot is observing this action of a mind turned in on itself, she’s also noting that this is a kind of norm. This is likely, in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, to be the lot of a middle class woman: inwardness, self-judging, obsessive, the mind pacing like a caged polar bear, in its too-small arena:

This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow.

Later, George Eliot will pick up this idea in the persons of other women  – the Aunts’ Glegg in Mill on the Floss, obsessed with the designs of their china and muslin, the only choices they have really had, Romola, who comes to massive life  through calls from without in a national tragedy in the novel of her name, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. For an under-occupied childless man of a similar class there was study, Darwinian collecting, politics, horses, gambling or  other dissipations. For a woman? The mind turning in on itself:

“I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

I notice now that George Eliot doesn’t seem quite to be talking about Nancy.  She has looked up from the story, from the character  she’s writing about, to  think on a more generalised level about laws of being.  She’s taken an example, but drawing a wider conclusion. ‘And there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy’  The pronoun ‘her’ in that sentence is not simply referring to Nancy.

But now we turn back to Nancy, and see some of the precise and particular moments of Nancy’s particular experience, and uncover something painful and hard to admit:

There was one main thread of painful experience in Nancy’s married life, and on it hung certain deeply-felt scenes, which were the oftenest revived in retrospect. The short dialogue with Priscilla in the garden had determined the current of retrospect in that frequent direction this particular Sunday afternoon. The first wandering of her thought from the text, which she still attempted dutifully to follow with her eyes and silent lips, was into an imaginary enlargement of the defence she had set up for her husband against Priscilla’s implied blame. The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds:–“A man must have so much on his mind,” is the belief by which a wife often supports a cheerful face under rough answers and unfeeling words. And Nancy’s deepest wounds had all come from the perception that the absence of children from their hearth was dwelt on in her husband’s mind as a privation to which he could not reconcile himself.

Oh dear.  Her sister finds fault with Godfrey because Godfrey is not happy about having no children – that was the conversation in the garden. I wonder, does he blame Nancy? ‘The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds’ Sounds like  she is wounded, and wounded by the loved object – Godfrey – she now defends. He cannot ‘reconcile’ himself to no children. How does that make her feel?

But of course we, unlike Nancy,  know that one of the drivers for Godfrey’s inability to reconcile himself is the fact that he has a child, a child he  cannot acknowledge, and that child lives with Silas Marner, in the village outside Godfrey’s house. Godfrey  has seen his daughter every week at church for the last ten, twelve, fourteen years.

Nancy, imagining and feeling her way through this complex  and  not entirely known emotional situation, has only part of the story.  She makes excuses for her husband but retains  great control over her own emotional life:

Yet sweet Nancy might have been expected to feel still more keenly the denial of a blessing to which she had looked forward with all the varied expectations and preparations, solemn and prettily trivial, which fill the mind of a loving woman when she expects to become a mother. Was there not a drawer filled with the neat work of her hands, all unworn and untouched, just as she had arranged it there fourteen years ago–just, but for one little dress, which had been made the burial-dress? But under this immediate personal trial Nancy was so firmly unmurmuring, that years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given.

Did I not notice it before or have I only just learned that Nancy had indeed had a baby but  that baby had died?

I  read back and realise that this is the first I’ve heard of Nancy’s lost baby. Here is the  information, packed away in the drawer, at the centre of the emotional  problem. There was a burial dress, and that burial dress memory is the clue to Nancy’s loss and her somewhat rigid reaction to it:

years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given –

She is religious, and desires to do and be right. Other children have not been ‘given’, and she believes it would be wrong of her to long for them. Therefore she denies herself  the possible comfort of looking at the baby clothes.  This is sad and possibly self-damamging.

I find myself thinking back to Silas’ trauma and wondering  what connections may lie between these two very different people. Silas’ cutting himself off feels much more animalistic – he retreated to a cave to lick his wounds and got stuck there, licking,  for ever, til Eppie wandered into his life.  Nancy’s response to her trauma seems more controlled but is it? ‘years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit’ –  is that control or a desperate measure to prevent pain?

Now, having opened the drawer with  the baby clothes in it, we get to see the lost baby and other potential children, too, as the problem at the centre of the problem is slowly revealed: a years’ experienced psychotherapist could not have done it better:

Perhaps it was this very severity towards any indulgence of what she held to be sinful regret in herself, that made her shrink from applying her own standard to her husband. “It is very different– it is much worse for a man to be disappointed in that way: a woman can always be satisfied with devoting herself to her husband, but a man wants something that will make him look forward more–and sitting by the fire is so much duller to him than to a woman.”

And always, when Nancy reached this point in her meditations–trying, with predetermined sympathy, to see everything as Godfrey saw it– there came a renewal of self-questioning. _Had_ she done everything in her power to lighten Godfrey’s privation? Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

Now, like the lost baby, we find another layer of secret pain – the marital battle over adoption. Godfrey has wanted to adopt and she has resisted that idea. Twice. He longs for a child.  That she knows.  Of course she questions herself. Has she done what she can to make him happy? Everything but agree to adoption.

The question for Nancy, as she meditates over her Bible, is  did she really do her duty by refusing to adopt a child when her husband told her he wanted to do so?

    Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child? Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on. They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

When we read the first sentence we are reading  in Nancy’s own voice,

  Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

But then something odd happens, and we suddenly find ourselves  seeing Nancy’s decision from outside herself. Dutiful she may be, by she’s also rigid, perhaps life-denyingly so:

Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on.

George Eliot finds something appalling in this:  ‘opinion’, ‘precisely’ ‘every’ ‘unwaveringly’; all these words colour the sentences above and show us that Nancy is  limiting her self and her possible reactions by her inflexible sticking to what come down to  – not thoughts, not feelings but opinions. How  thin ‘opinions’ feel as a basis for life.

They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

Some terrible words alert me to a judgement being made by author: tenacity (which might in other circumstances be a good thing) pretty (again, could be good but here point to something merely external and at odds with the inflexible inner Nancy…) and finally, damningly, little. ‘Her unalterable  little code’. There’s something appalling to George Eliot in the coming together in one person of  girlish prettiness and rigid tenacity and smallness of mind. It’s a type of being that she will return to many times in her work over  the years of her writing life, most notably in Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch.

Is it partly the result of the subjugation of women?  How can you grow fully rounded when  the space around you is so powerfully restricted? Yet if there is power there… and it displays itself in mental rigidity,  an inability to grow, or to change with circumstance.

pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

that the setting out of your dressing table should be ordered in the same way as your  thoughts on adoption – I’ve always thought this and so I stick to it – is a damning indictment.  or is it an indictment?  Is it simply an investigation into  a particular person?

More next week.

The Winter’s Tale Day 4: That’s The Spirit

 

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Bamboo in the  Woods at Calderstones Park, March 2018

Last week or the week before  Loubyjo  reminded me that it was 10 years since the Shakespeare Reading group had started  in the old Lauries office which used to house Get Into Reading. Ten years!

I don’t know how long it is since Louise took  that Shakespeare group over, or when Bernie decided she had done her stint…but congratulations to Bernie, who ran it for years and to Louise, who has run it for years ,and to Marion who has run it with Louise for years… This is one of the best things to come out of  The Reader…and what I would have hoped for, if I’d had the imagination to hope in that way, when I started.

I started the group  – I think – because I wanted to tell people that you could read Shakespeare in Shared Reading – it doesn’t have to be a short story and poem.

It does have to be  great literature.

The  form that the literature comes in (let me list some forms: nineteenth century novel in tiny weekly installments for two years, Shakespeare play for six months, one-off poem, one-off short story, one-off short story followed by ‘matching’ or ‘non-matching’ poem, modern novel, essay, Homer’s Odyssey for  two years, one-off incomprehensible contemporary poem) the form it comes in REALLY DOESN’T MATTER.

I’m shouting because one of the things that has gone wrong with  the growth of Shared Reading is that many people tell me  Shared Reading is reading a short story with matching poem.  No,  no, no.  You don’t have to match a poem. You could read any poem.  You don’t have to read a poem at all. Just read a chapter of War and Peace or a short story on its own.  Or you can only read a poem. I mean if you were going to read Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ you’d have to read it over two or three weeks. You couldn’t tag it on to a short story as a match. The short story and poem format means there is loads of stuff you can’t read! That can’t be right.

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban (find it in The Moment Under the Moment, a collection of  essays and other things). And I read ‘Crossing The Bar’. They do not ‘match’.  I just liked them both and was worried we might finish ‘Schwartz’ before the time was up (actually, I think it might have taken two weeks).

Because teaching, as we do on Read to Lead,  in three days is a sledgehammer activity,  and because we have the wonderful A Little Aloud series, for years some people have come away with the idea that Shared Reading = reading a short story with a matching poem. No. No. No.

That can be done. Yes. But as in all things it is not the form that counts, it’s the spirit. The form is important because it is a way of having, of being, the spirit. But you can have empty forms.  Don’t go for form. Go for spirit. I don’t think it is possible to have empty spirit.

Read great stuff. Moving,  powerful, human stuff that gets you feeling and thinking. And for me, if I was teaching,  sledgehammering, I’d say always be aiming to get to Shakespeare in the end.

Here’s the end of the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale:

 

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

Camillos speaks of the grown-up Kings’ boyhoods’ and  Archidamus  speaks of Mamillius, son of Sicillia, son of King Leontes. Funny little bit of  stagey business this –  two civil servants chatting before the big newsworthy public occasion, exchanging pleasantries but also giving clues to audience.  Last time I wrote about this play noticed some of the frightening language in Camillo’s speech about the Kings, now  I notice Archidamus’  underlying worry  about matter or malice. Can anything alter the  state of friendship between these two childhood friends? And for Mamillius, we have ‘promise’, ‘hopes’ and, says Camillo,

…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.

We live for the possibility held by the unfolding future, which we experience in a child. The child changes time, ‘makes old hearts fresh’ and gives the old a powerful desire to live. We want – me with my grandchildren, Camillo with his King’s son – to live ‘ to see him a man.’ That investment in the future is powerful. Otherwise,  Archidamus wonders, might we desire to die?

What else is there to live for? Camillo leaves open the possibility that there might be  other reasons, but he can’t think of any:

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

The play is not yet started ,yet we are already in the thick of its subject matter, even though we don’t yet know what that subject matter is… it is living, it is reasons to stay alive, it is death, it is loss of children.

While the two opening actors seem to speak lightly, merely socially, almost  meaninglessly, yet they  have set out the play for us in advance, and Archidamus now  puts the finishing touch to it:

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

A child gives you a reason to live, but no child also gives you a reason: you ‘ve got to let enough time pass to get one. This  is primogeniture: the King must have an heir! If he hasn’t got one, we’ve got to keep going until he does.  And so we will… Looking back at the opening of this piece, I see that I was bemoaning not having the imagination to hope for a future that has unfolded in real life.

This is what I love about Shakespeare. The form – two servants come into a room and start a preamble – turns out to be a  piece of life. A piece that might not yet have come into existence, but real nonetheless. The form holds the spirit. Spirit’s the thing. Forms change.

Don’t follow rules. Except sometimes when you need to.  Run a Shared Reading group by following D.H. Lawrence’s  rule:  ‘We must balance as we go’.

 

 

Splitting The World Open: Celebrating International Women’s Day With A Poem

women's press (2)Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry,  The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence  to write in 2018  but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of  the world’s youth revolution, 1968.  Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited  by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were  women.  At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry.  I think that was a pretty widespread view.

Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little  iron, its logo.

I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me.  Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.

I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books  to help me build my self up.  I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been  with me through nearly forty years reading.  I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my  hand.

I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was  it.

bernikow

Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs).    Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit  too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.

 

 

 

 

The Doubt of Future Foes
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Yes, the sonnet is long-distance interesting in the psychological cost of political trouble, but I didn’t connect with it: there’s was nothing here to latch onto my own experience at that time.  But this fragment, written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock, where she was being held prisoner,  seemed to zap through time, connecting her to me:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.

behn

 

I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing.  I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later  getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.

 

 

Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,
For whom Fresh pains he did Create,
And strange Tyrannic power he showed;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the Amorous World.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his Pride and Cruelty;
From me his Languishments and Fears,
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor Heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.

Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open

Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.

And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.

I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day  by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.

 

 

 

 

Minding My Business: Wendell Berry’s take on Literature, Ray Dalio’s Principles and William Stafford’s Ritual To Read To Each Other

The Reader R Black

It’s all business at the moment.

I’m gearing up for a new financial year, a new planning year, a new make-the-organisation-again year at The Reader and I am working on organisational thinking things, which also require writing  and reading but not of this readerly-blog-sort. Most of my early morning time is being spent on business books and organisational thinking. Some of that organisational thinking  needs poetry, and a poem  I often turn to at work is William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other‘.

There are many copies of the poem on the internet and I’m using the one at  The Poetry Foundation.

Trying to translate everything I learn from my life in literature  into my work as the Founder and Director of The Reader is a difficult task but surely, it is the task for me? If The Reader isn’t made out of reading I don’t know what is.

If The Reader’s mission is a reading revolution, what is the post-revolutionary world? A world informed by, shaped by, made new by what we can learn from reading great books. It’s easy to say ‘a world’, but so much harder to make one. In a small way, I want to make that world at The Reader.

Before the advent of The Reader (the organisation, the movement and Calderstones all started with The Reader magazine, which is twenty-one this Spring)  the main thing I had to make from my engagement with literature was myself. There were ripple effects  on my students, too, I believe, but those ripples were much  harder to judge than the effect of literature on me, which I know from inside. Making a self is a lifetime task, as reading and tussling with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has taught me:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

At some point long ago, when I still worked in a university, I read Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘The Loss of The University’  ( find it in the collection of essays Standing on Earth) and realised what was wrong with literary studies. I don’t have the book here at home (it’s in the office) so cannot check the quotation, but essentially  Wendell Berry argues that literary scholars teach students to learn about works of literature rather than from them.  I’d not been an ‘about’ student or teacher, but I’d never put my instinct on this into words until I saw the words Wendell Berry used. That was key moment of shocked recognition. Now I carry that formulation with me : don’t learn about it, learn from it. You get the literary, rather than the historical, experience that way.

I want to use what I have learned from forty years of reading literature to make a good organisation that does good work, and works well.

But the difficulties of organisation-making are immense. Since I’ve been working on The Reader I have developed a massive respect for anyone who gets any kind of business /organisation/ project off the ground. A garden centre, a new building,  a plane ticket, the Olympics. Because  everything is so complicated, compromises must always be made – plastic bottles or glass bottles? –  and short-cuts must be taken, but which short-cut is a readerly organisation willing to take? You’ve deadlines to meet: will you cut out the day’s reading or your one-to-one with a sadly troubled colleague or will you miss the  bid deadline and potential income? (Clue: cut the one that will still be do-able tomorrow).

Let’s take a straightforwardly contentious issue: what’s fair in  terms of pay? This is a massive unsolvable problem and for years I’ve been tempted towards a simple solution: pay everyone the same! But that’s not fair, because some people put in more than others, some shoulder more responsiblility, some are highly valued in the outside-world-markets of skills. And, yes,  the organisation must exist within the terms of the outside world, even as  things I have learned in my life in literature tell me to build a new and better world. So it’s always a case of  compromise and adjust, work out  what’s the nearest thing to fair that fits the situation and meets legislation. Or you can just copy what most people/other organisations do.

This is what William Stafford might mean when he talks about ‘a pattern  that others made’:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
           world
and following the wrong god home we may miss
           our star.

These patterns that others made – from payscales to  maternity leave entitlements to meeting agendas to dresscode – are everywhere and are the norm in the world. They may cause massive loss of  potential and misdirection. For William Stafford this all begins at a personal, individual level. Do we know each other? Do you know the kind of person I am?

I wonder about ‘kind’ here: does it mean ‘type’, or almost ‘species’ ?

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
How well do you have to know someone to know the ‘kind of person’ they are? I try using the phrase  – Jane is the kind of person who thinks everyone getting the same amount of money is the answer to pay inequality/thinks eating together at work matters/would like to have a communal song every morning/always wants people to have another chance, right up to the wire/thinks you can use great literature to help build an organisation/will change her mind.
This is not very deep or very personal – most people  I work with  will know most of the above, though have to admit, have not had the courage to mention my longing for a song.  And there are other  things I haven’t added to this list, for reasons  of reputation. But do we even mostly know stuff at this level, openly ? Is it openly acknowledged?  Possibly not because look how quickly, in the next stanza, things fall apart.  (and the stuff I haven’t mentioned – how open might I or my colleagues be about that?)
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
          childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
We start off at quite a superficial level, possibly (‘if’) not knowing the kind of person we’re talking to and then we hit the word ‘betrayal’. This isn’t merely superficial ‘kind of’ knowing, is it?  What we know or are willing to have known matters.
The betrayal is only ‘in the mind’  – you don’t say it or let it be seen –  but  still, a betrayal is a big thing.
Like the shrug –  you’d think it was not  much. You’re just letting something go, can’t fix everything, can’t get everything right.  Next thing you know, the ‘fragile sequence’ is broken.
What is that ‘fragile sequence’? It’s certainly connected to ‘god’ and ‘home’ : perhaps it’s something to do with how we behave or how we be our (whatever they are) selves? Pehaps it is the civil contract of being adult with each other? For when the fragile sequence breaks, it’s our more primitive selves that come to the fore:
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
          childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
Small things lead to big. Bit of a shrug,  then someone is in a mess and suffering the patterns of behaviour laid down in childhood – the shouting, the storming, the trauma.
These thoughts  were already with me when I read Ray Dalio’s Principles over the Christmas break, have been, because of this and other works of literature, with me for years. When I started reading Principles there was the same kind of recognition  I had had with the Wendell Berry all those years ago. Dalio’s a money man, a markets analyst and he runs one of the most successful companies in the world. What could he have to offer The Reader, to old pay-everyone-the-same-Jane?
Principles begins with the kind of person Ray Dalio is – he wants us to know  that before we get into business together.  The book is in two halves – parts 1&2 about Ray and the kind of man he is and what he believes about life, and  then part 3, work principles.
His basic  message for me is life is evolution:  live, suffer, work out what went wrong, try to fix it.
I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. At the big bang, all the laws and forces of the universe were created and propelled forward, interacting with each other over time like a complex series of machines that work together: the strucuture of the galaxies, the make-up of Earth’s geography and ecosystems, our economies and markets, and each one of us. Individually we are machines made up of different machines – our circulatory systems, our nervous systems, and so on – that produce our thoughts, our dreams, our emotions, and every other aspect of our distinct personalities. All these machine are evolving together to produce the reality we encounter every day.
It’s a trouble for me that Ray Dalio uses the word ‘machine’ in exactly the same way that it is a trouble for me that George Herbert uses the word ‘God’.  I have to use my translating mechanism in both cases, and in  exactly the same way – don’t get hung up on it. Just accept he’s different (the kind of person he is) and that he still has a lot to offer me. What has the most to offer? His analytic skills  and willingness to arrive at truth are remarkable.
See Ray Dalio’s TED talk  here.

 

 

Silas Marner Day 38: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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Mimosa tree  coming into flower-bud,  Calderstones Park, Feb 23 

This morning I’m going back to Silas Marner (find an online text here) … and thinking about class. But is it class? Or is it education? Or is it education of the feelings?  Eppie is the daughter of a drug-addict mother and a nogoodnik posh-boy father. She’s got, like most of us, a pretty mixed gene pool. So there’s nature for you.

Now, as to nurture:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

I notice with a slight flinch ‘she was not quite a common village maiden’ and have to stop myself and try to  think carefully about what this means so as not to knee-jerk a class-based response.  I ask myself, what is fervour? What is refinement?

What’s meant by refinement, I wonder? It seems a class word, about being posh, but when I look it up it’s about being pure or full of feeling. I think of Jeanette Winterson, (read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal) little fighting kid of Accrington, and I’d say, she had her own kind of refinement. And what is fervour? It, too, is a feeling word, warmth, heat of feeling. I think of Jeanette as different from many other Accrington kids -why? She felt a lot and what she felt propelled her – few other homeless gay kids of her time got themselves into Oxford to read English.  What Jeanette didn’t have was  the kind of love Silas gives to Eppie. I look back at the beginning of the paragraph:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity.

Still something for me to worry about in lowering influences? I’ll come back to that. Eppie grows up in a tiny world  made up Silas – himself cut off from most of the village – and visits from Dolly Winthrop. The seclusion of their dwelling sets her apart physically, mentally and emotionally. What are village talk and habits, I wonder?   The modern equivalent is  life with the Kardashians, I suppose.  Silly, commonplace, superficial influences about bums and jewellry. No one at the most serious times of their lives, real love, real pain, will be getting through life’s biggest or deepest moments with those influences uppermost. But they are there, lowering away, on a day-to-day basis. Eppie is set aside from all that by being in an intense parent-child relationship which is full of love.

I take some time here because it is easy to read badly, too fast, and make  modern, mocking judgements about class. Eppie’s refinement and fervour

came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

‘Unvitiated’ = uncorrupted, pure, unsullied.

Perhaps such feeling is only possible at some distance from the world of Kardashians, or whatever the nineteenth century equivalent was? I’m thinking about Wordsworth – whom George Eliot read.

She was too childish and simple for her imagination to rove into questions about her unknown father; for a long while it did not even occur to her that she must have had a father; and the first time that the idea of her mother having had a husband presented itself to her, was when Silas showed her the wedding-ring which had been taken from the wasted finger, and had been carefully preserved by him in a little lackered box shaped like a shoe. He delivered this box into Eppie’s charge when she had grown up, and she often opened it to look at the ring: but still she thought hardly at all about the father of whom it was the symbol. Had she not a father very close to her, who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters? On the contrary, who her mother was, and how she came to die in that forlornness, were questions that often pressed on Eppie’s mind. Her knowledge of Mrs. Winthrop, who was her nearest friend next to Silas, made her feel that a mother must be very precious; and she had again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms. The furze bush was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested her eyes and thoughts.

It’s interesting that Eppie never thinks about her biological father – she has no need to, because she has Silas, ‘who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters.’ The mother is a missing element, only known indirectly as a model in Dolly Winthrop and it is this missing element that Eppie is driven to seek, asking,

again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms.

Now we enter some pages of dialogue and plot, which I’m going to read through fast – Eppie raising the subject of her likely marriage and Silas doing his best not to be frightened at the change that is bound to come.

And so to the next chapter, XVII, where the scene changes and we are  back with the posh folks. Nancy née Lammeter and her sister Priscilla are also discussing gardens, and also dairies, and finally, Nancy’s inability to bear children; then Nancy is left alone, reading her bible and letting her thoughts wander. They wander towards  this issue of having children and her husband’s response to it. And this, George Eliot seems to imply, is in itself a kind of  prayerful meditation:

But Nancy’s Sunday thoughts were rarely quite out of keeping with the devout and reverential intention implied by the book spread open before her. She was not theologically instructed enough to discern very clearly the relation between the sacred documents of the past which she opened without method, and her own obscure, simple life; but the spirit of rectitude, and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others, which were strong elements in Nancy’s character, had made it a habit with her to scrutinize her past feelings and actions with self-questioning solicitude.

I look up rectitude. It means straightness. Nancy’s a person who tries to be straight and decent, and has self-knowledge, examining herself and her actions.

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled. She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable. This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. “I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

George Eliot is very interested in the lot of women who have nothing to do. In real life she was Marian Evans, an incredibly  intelligent, self-educated midlands woman, who  in her early years had run her father’s house, and in mid-life developed a career in the London literary world ,editing the Westminster Review before beginning her work as a novelist at the age of thirty-nine. She had no children.

I’ve gone away from the book! Back to the text, go back, go back!

But will pick up here next time –  lots to do today, garden calling.

Just Started: The Cloud of Unknowing

A token it is that time is precious: for God, that is given of time, giveth never two times together, but each one after other.

Am reading on my phone on one of those ancient Northen Line trains (no Powerhouse, this chunterer…) and struck by the connection of the anon author of The Cloud to a contemporary life like mine – never two times together but each one after the other… many years since I last read this ancient text. Good to be back with it.

Paradise Lost 17: Skipping Over Legions of Fallen Angels

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Single Red Camellia  18 February

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

You’ll find a good online text here.

In the last reading of Paradise Lost I had I short half hour and managed to read a couple of lines. That brought me to about line 375 in Book 1.  Now Milton asks his Muse to help him list the names  of fallen angels:

Say, Muse, thir Names then known, who first, who last,
Rous’d from the slumber, on that fiery Couch,
At thir great Emperors call, as next in worth
Came singly where he stood on the bare strand,
While the promiscuous croud stood yet aloof? [ 380 ]

In what order of power/evil/fallenness do they appear? What is, Milton’s eyes most evil?

The chief were those who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek thir prey on earth, durst fix
Thir Seats long after next the Seat of God,
Thir Altars by his Altar, Gods ador’d
Among the Nations round, and durst abide [ 385 ]
Jehovah thundring out of Sion, thron’d
Between the Cherubim; yea, often plac’d
Within his Sanctuary it self thir Shrines,
Abominations; and with cursed things
His holy Rites, and solemn Feasts profan’d, [ 390 ]
And with thir darkness durst affront his light.

Those pagan gods whose shrines resided inside the temple come first. This is interesting to me, as someone who has shied away from organised religion since the age of  nine or ten.  Are there still false gods intertwined with real God? can bad stuff be housed within good?  I move from thinking about religion to say thinking about Social Care.  Is Social Care, paid for from our taxes a good idea? I believe so.  Is some very bad stuff done within Social Care? I’m sure so.  Is Milton’s thinking about his religious  universe a different layer of the same reality I think of in terms of  Social Care?  That thought is what  keeps me going in this very long – two hundred lines long – list of fallen angels. I read through it, but I’m reading very fast, getting the rough outline, looking for anything that interests me, that connects to something I know. I rush through  the ancient middle Eastern deities and places of  Old Testament history, and stop for a moment at this:

For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thirEssence pure, [ 425 ]
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aerie purposes, [ 430 ]
And works of love or enmity fulfill.

I wonder if Milton has been reading The Tempest and met Shakespeare’s Aeriel? It’s interesting, too, that the nature of spirits does not change even after the fall – they are still pure Essence, uncompounded and can take any shape they choose in order to do their works of love or emnity. What does that say to me abou t the way works of love or emnity come to me/from me?

I wonder what purpose this lists serves or served?

It has to be a different experience for us reading now, mostly not knowing any of the Biblical source material. But to Milton and his contemporary audience (fit audience, though few, as he says)  is it a making live an old  text, is it reanimating the old material and making it now: here  they are, those ancient names of bad gods, and here they are – somehow – with us still –

Belial came last, then whom a Spirit more lewd [ 490 ]
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak’d; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons, who fill’d [ 495 ]
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

We move from Old Testament (To him no Temple stood/Or Altar smoak’d😉   into the present tense:

In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial,flown with insolence and wine.

and then we move from the Old Testament to another mode of being, Ancient Greece, so that Milton is covering all knowledge bases: whichever civilisation you trace it through – Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian – same story: the fall from Heaven and corruption  brought to Earth:

These were the prime in order and in might;
The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d,
Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held
Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth
Thir boasted Parents; Titan Heav’ns first born [ 510 ]
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top [ 515 ]
Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air
Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land;

I’m reading very fast, because there is not much here for me. But as the list begins to wind down, I pay more attention:

All these and more came flocking; but with looks
Down cast and damp, yet such wherein appear’d
Obscure some glimps of joy, to have found thir chief
Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost [ 525 ]
In loss it self; which on his count’nance cast
Like doubtful hue: but he his wonted pride
Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore
Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d
Thir fainting courage, and dispel’d thir fears. [ 530 ]

I’m thinking about the psychology of mass despair and mass revival: the fallen angels see  their chief  ‘not in despair, ‘  Good, isn’t it,  the way Milton puts it so that the key word, ‘despair’ is still hugely present, only slightly made negative by the much smaller ‘not’. The fallen angels still see loss in him, ‘which on his count’nance cast/Like doubtful hue’ yet their sense of despair is overcome by Satan’s  semblence, his appearance  of ‘not despair’, his pride carries him through , and carries the fallen angels through, too. I can imagine in  real life being carried by such pride, or allowing myself to be tricked. I think of dictators and false leaders, the willingness to follow, to be duped.

That’s my time up for the day. Must get out into the garden while the sun is shining.

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