Experiencing the click: what language adds to consciousness

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The traveler, treading her own path in the snowy wastes, Norway, January 2018

I had really intended to carry on reading Silas Marner this morning but I’m preparing for a staff teaching session later in the day and found myself really wanting to read Wordsworth, so I’m going with that flow.

I’ve been thinking about how reading  helps a reader know herself. I’m sure there are a number of key ways, and this is only one of them.

There’s a click that needs to happen which  makes you think, I’ve got to understand this… this… whatever it is, this person I’m in, this life, this Jane.  Time is partly that something. Time and the pain of repeated mistakes. Time and patterns.  You are in The Matrix. You might stay  in it forever. Or perhaps something will happen to make you realise – click – you are in the Matrix. Only once you know you are in, can you start think of getting out.

For me, one of the moments of  click came long ago  in Middlemarch, Book 4, Chapter 42, when I read these terrible words about human wastage. A man in trouble doesn’t respond to the touch of his wife’s hand on his arm because he fears she pities him and he can’t stand the thought of being pitied:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

I think it was during the writing of my Ph.D   – so between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty – that that particular click happened.  That wasn’t  my first reading of Middlemarch, when this half sentence probably passed me by. But by the time I was rereading the novel as part of my doctoral study, life  had  battered me into learning  something about joy, and wastage, and devastation and calling denial knowledge.  Perhaps without the heavy thumping of pain! mistake! pain! error! in my own and other people’s lives, and deaths, I’d never have had the understanding.

But, like the hero of Les Murray’s poem about his autistic son, ‘It Allows a Portrait in Linescan At Fifteen’, by the time I was  writing that Ph.D I knew I had to learn  to stay  alive,

I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!

How did I come to that understanding?

First, I had the experiences that  led to that ‘gotta get smart’  feeling. Then I read the words:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

Experiences, feelings, words. That’s a possible pattern.

The words here gave voice to the feeling. If I hadn’t read Middlemarch, I’d still have had the feeling, which  was a response to stuff that happened, and is an evolutionary tool for survival. Feel this! Feel this! Note it!  But seeing it written, as many people in Shared Reading groups have told me over the years, makes some sort of difference.

It is partly ‘someone else has felt this’.  That, too, may be an evolutionary tool. If one person gets a stomach ache from eating those bitter green berries it might be bad luck or it might be the after effect of too many sweet white tubers from yesterday. But if twenty people feel sick after eating bitter green berries, you know it’s probably the berries.

The recognition of ‘I know that’, or ‘That’s me, that is!’, or ‘I’ve felt that!’ is a powerful one. Yes, it’s probably the validation of one’s feelings and experience in another, but it’s more than that, it is also the explosion into consciousness through language of self-validation, of knowing your self. Language brings more of us into the light. Language helps us know.

I was thinking of how a person might gather self-knowledge and remembered  that when Wordsworth starting writing The Prelude he began by looking at himself:

When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such a glorious work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often chearing; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general truths which are themselves a sort
Of elements and agents, under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind.
Nor am I naked in external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil,
And needful to build up a poet’s praise.
Time, place, and manners, these I seek, and these
I find in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice—

He’s got a lot and feels pretty cheerful about it until he realises he hasn’t got the main thing – a subject, ‘time, place and manners, these I seek…’ and  pretty quickly the sense of not having or being able to fix on a subject, ‘singled out with steady choice’ begins to wear him down:

The true questioning of self is hard:
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

There’s a feeling of wastage here, isn’t there? Of loss? Even deceit or cheating? A steward is a person to looks after something (often a house or homestead)  for someone else. A steward would have bed and board, a home. and yet this false one, give nothing back, you’re in an unequal and untrue  relationship. Agh ! Stuck! Agh! Idiot! Agh! Can’t do it! And he doesn’t give up. and that not giving up  leads, almost despite Wordsworth’s conscious thought, to an opening, when he starts guiltily kicking himself:

—Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov’d
To blend his murmurs with my Nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flow’d along my dreams? For this, didst Thou,
O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
Near my ’sweet Birthplace’, didst thou, beauteous Stream
Make ceaseless music through the night and day
Which with its steady cadence, tempering
Our human waywardness, compos’d my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me,
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.

He’s off now, with a subject, and the subject is, though he doesn’t know it yet,   what am I and how did I come to be it? And how did he get to his subject?  He got there by looking very hard at what he had and what he didn’t have…He had the feeling right at the beginning of the poem  (‘oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze’), the feeling of    hhmmmmmm going to do something going to get something going… then the hits the wall of, oh, no subject. (Most young writers will know this moment) I wonder how long – hours, weeks, months or years, he was stuck at this point?

see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,

But the stubbornness of not giving up, of keeping looking, questioning, asking  gets him beyond it and into – despite himself – something else.

This is too rushed for a big subject but time’s up.

The Buried Life and Four Great Books

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Cotoneaster Doing Its Best in Calderstones Park, 10 October

Humans beings are meaning-making creatures: making meaning is how we  do our being. We’re here, born into the world, apparently needing to survive even beyond or aside from our biological purpose of perpetuating the species and we’re happiest when we are completely absorbed by compelling activity.  I think that whatever else Shared Reading does (and there are many useful offshoots) what it does primarily, what in essence it is, is the making of  meaning. Those meanings aren’t always shared, often times they are profoundly individual and are simply witnessed by others. That sharing through witnessing is profound. I’m thinking of a moment in a Drug and Alcohol Addiction Centre when we were reading The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I’ve  written about this great novel before, here.

This is a book I would always aim to read in a Shared Reading group, but especially  in a group where people have had or are having a hard time. It’s a children’s novel but it is funny and sophisticated, a painful novel of a hard  journey that ends  happily with a homecoming and a  self-assembled family. The Story: a father-mouse-and-child-mouse clockwork toy gets broken and  thrown out on the street: they have to get fixed, escape an enemy, find a road, find a family and fight for their territory, make a home and eventually, become self-winding.

We’d  just read the  part where, for a second time, the father and child get smashed apart. Haven’t got the book here, so can’t quote it but it is a terrible moment when the father cries out, ‘We’re broken!’  and the novel tells us that the  saying of the word ‘broken’ is as terrible as the experience of it.

As we read, a bunch of us, raggedy and battle-scarred adults sitting around a table in an institutional room with our cups of  tea, taking in those hard words, one man responded with a broken, involuntary cry,  saying something like, ‘I know how that feels, I’m broken: I have bowel-cancer. Saying that is harder than having the disease.’

Everyone was moved by the man’s cry, and  after a few moments another member of the group, a guy with a terrible stammer  leaned to towards  him to say, in a moment of profound solidarity, ‘We’re all f…f…f…f…f****ing broken, Jim.’   As he spoke he made a wildly expansive gesture with his arm and knocked three or four cups of tea over all of us.

Why am I remembering this? It was one of the great moments of  meaning and witness I’ve experienced in my Shared Reading life.

I  was thinking  yesterday as I continued to think about the films I had seen on Thursday, that  my relation to Shared Reading starts from  the belief that things are broken, and a work of literature that gives a great account of  that is The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. (I think I am going to start adding an ongoing reading of the play into my weekly  reading pattern.) That the pattern of my belief, as set out in books, could be  everything starts from the broken and the stuck (Winter’s Tale), discovers moments of life-making but transitory meaning (as In Wordsworth, ‘Intimations’ or The Prelude) turns to the workaday world of George Eliot (Middlemarch: there has to be vocation, habit, to hold you in place). This is a template of sorts.

The poem I am reading at the moment, ‘The Buried Life’, by Matthew Arnold, homes in on one area of the template, the moment when ‘something’ pokes through the  ordinary and takes you fleetingly into some other order of feeling.

I’m having trouble making the stanza breaks show, for some reason, when I paste the poem here, so do look it up here, where it appears  in the way it should!

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
On previous days I’d got to this point in Stanza 2,
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Interesting that Matthew Arnold sees the inability to be direct as a problem of others, ‘the mass of men’, ‘they’ for  in a moment he will make himself part of that mass. But  at first it seems as if it is ‘them’. Even more interesting  is his sense that  the mass of men, most people are or see themselves as ‘alien to the rest/Of men, and alien to themselves.’  That addition, ‘alien to themselves’ is the complicated bit. How does he know?

 

Do I know? How do I know?

Because I love this bit of the poem, and I believe it. I suppose I know because , though I don’t like to admit it, I recognise at some level, that it is true in me. Alien to  myself.  Read it! Read it again!

It’s as if we revealed even to ourselves what we really felt and thought it would be frightening, alarming. And yet ‘The same heart beats in every human breast!’ – do I believe that, too? Yes.  I’m both in disguie, hiding, to others and oftentimes to my self and I also recognise I’m doing that and so is everyone else. We feel as others feel.

That brings the close of the stanza. There’s normal life – hidden, disguied –  and that should be different to our life in love (open, together, connecting) , but it seems it is not:

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Is there something that one individual cannot share with another, however close? Look at all the joining pronouns : we, my love, our hearts, our voices, we. Yet they can’t get seem to get over it.

New stanza.  If you look at the  Poetry Foundation version of the poem and see the stanza breaks, it’s worth some thought about them. Why do they come where they come? It feels as if Matthew Arnold  has to keep starting again – get’s to a dead-end, can’t take his thought any further, stops. Starts again.

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

This stanza seems to offer a small possibility that  communication might be possible, for the closest lovers, ‘even for a moment’.  Previously the problem was couched in terms of ‘spell’ and dumbness, but now the language points us to  some sort of locking up,  ‘free’, ‘unchained’ and ‘seals’ point  me towards a sense of something present but un-get-at-able! And whatever it is – it ‘hath been deep ordained’. That’s interesting isn’t it, because ordained seems a religious word, so I am slightly thinking,  is it a god-given fact?  But ‘deep’; makes it feel biological, as if it is in the very depths of our being , in our DNA , in our cells, in our heart of hearts.

Yet there is possible movement here – it might happen that we could ‘get free/our heart’, even if it is only ‘for a moment.’

Yes, that is the moment that sometimes happens to  readers in Shared Reading groups. It doesn’t happen all the time, it doesn’t happen to everyone. But when it does happen, everyone who witnesses it knows they have been close to something profound. And we are all affected by that.

Time is up.

Early start at Euston

euston
Anything to show more fair than an empty concourse?

Ok, Euston concourse is not Westminster Bridge but the quiet here at 07.00 am reminded me of   the Wordsworth poem.  By the time I’d got a coffee and taken my laptop out to start writing, the floor below had become twice as busy.

Of course, London of Wordsworth’s 1802, with a population of 1 million, was a very different city but even so,  it was big and noisy and full to him. I wondered, walking down from Highbury Fields to the tube, whether we appreciate quiet minutes in a big city more because we  know they will soon be gone.

Now I read the poem, it seems more about rest  than anything else, has the atmosphere of watching a sleeping child. A child, yes,  but perhaps a giant child:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I say a giant child because of the size Wordsworth immediately makes me feel when he says this moment, this vision, is one which fits into the largest geographical size category: ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ is a huge comparison coming from a man of Hellvelyn who has crossed the Alps on foot. Earth? Earth?

But I wonder where the next lines come from?

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:

Are there people passing by unmoved?  Was Wordsworth himself not looking at first? Has he rounded a corner and had his breath taken away?  Or like me entering Euston this morning – I’ve been here hundreds of times and if you say ‘Euston’ a very crowded, hot, uncomfortable, jostling, sometimes panicky scene/feeling enters my mind. So I came in this morning, up the elevator from the tube not thinking, expecting the norm, and suddenly, silence, breeze, space. I was dull of soul before that change stopped me in my tracks. The city  – ‘this city’, he actually writes, making it specific, present, all about us, turn, look, now! –

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

It’s as if some lovely gauzy, light, silk scarf – ‘the beauty of the morning’ –  has been thrown over it, changing its appearance, and yet still showing the bone structure: ‘ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples’. What’s missing is the smoke – everything is ‘bright and glittering in the smokeless air’ –  that’s the norm, the usual garment, the smoke, the fogginess. Because I know other  poems of Wordsworth – and almost everyone who has heard of him will know he has some connection to the Lake District – I can’t help feel he is comparing what he sees now, to scenes he has experienced in the deep calm of the remote north country:

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

I love the movement from outside scene to inside feeling, which seems to happen as soon as he talks about seeing – in fact, it’s as if he realises it’s not the seeing that  is affecting him.

 

Train due, time up. That was a moment of calm in a busy world.

 

Central Peace, Endless Agitation

 

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Campanula in the rain, 7 June

A pleasure this morning to spend my reading hour with the new Read to Lead course handbook, which landed on my desk yesterday. Thanks to the team who have worked so hard to produce such a lovely, useful thing!

 

handbook

It was a pleasure, too,  to remember this, which is featured on page 31:

I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

From The Excursion Book IV, by William Wordsworth

This is one of Wordsworth’s enormous metaphors which point us in the direction of the  unseen unknowable but intimated reality he exists as a poet to tell us about. That we might pick ‘the universe itself’ up to our ear and hear reverberations of ‘invisible things’ is a marvellous, to me ,true-feeling idea. And, this being Wordsworth, he goes on to have a go at describing those invisible things, things which struck me, this morning, as I wait for the polling station to open, as relevant to my day:

Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

Good to read how, by picking the universe up and concentrating on it, listening to what comes back, we are to find access to some kind of ‘central peace, subsisting at the heart.’ Like the daily reading practice which I record here, I’m finding the exercise of  choosing something to look at and photograph each day gives me just such a moment of ‘listening’.

Now to enter in the  fray of the  world and – whatever the result of the  General Election –  endure more agitation.

I don’t have time to write much this morning as need to get out and participate in democracy before catching the London train. As I pack my bag I remember it is less than a hundred years since the slogan ‘Votes For Women ‘ was an extreme and unimaginable aspiration.

 

Concentrated Wordsworth – Do Not Dilute

 

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View from Caldy Hill

On my commute I’ve been listening to Cal Newport’s  Deep Work, a book which offers insight into why it’s hard to concentrate in a distracted world, and what you can do about it. There are interesting thoughts here, and I’ve been trying to test some of them out. I’d already decided to  limit my email time – which I’ve done by putting up a weekly out-of-office message explaining I’ll only answer at set times. If people need a quick answer they have to ring me up or text me. That seems to work, and has convinced me that most email messages are not urgent, and I don’t need to check them 10, 15, 20 times a day. The time saved not checking is worth having. But Cal’s book goes further, and suggests we should practice deep concentration, with our network connection off… because we can’t multi-task, and every time we interrupt ourselves we lose energy and interrupt our own mental processes. As I’m reading on an audio book, I can’t flip through to find a good quote for you but I will be buying a paper copy, and I’m recommending it.

A little while ago I wrote about Denise Levertov’s poem ‘O Taste and See’ which begins by quoting this poem by Wordsworth. Deep Work made me think of the Wordsworth poem:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Wordsworth contrasts ‘the world’ – the human world we create, world of time and stuff, with the other world, the planet perhaps, world of Nature, and he finds us (or maybe himself) out of kilter. Haven’t you had that feeling?
When I have it, it is likely that I don’t notice the qualifier, ‘too much’ with its hidden implication of a possible balance. There is a place on a scale where the world might be with us the right amount, then?
‘Late and soon’ he writes, bringing time into it in a peculiarly ‘busy human’ way: as if Time were cut down into the little pieces on wither side of us, just before or just after this moment.
I’ve always read ‘getting and spending’ as about money and material objects but just now as I read I thought of them differently, as being perhaps to do with the deployment of energy,  of the powers we lay waste to in the  other half of the line.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
I’m thinking of busyness, of rushing about, of using up your power, doing things. What if we just stopped, and conserved some of that energy? Wordsworth seem to achieve a moment’s mastery at this point and looks up, wonderingly:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It’s like looking out onto a strange landscape, an unfamiliar world – this world of Nature looks unconnected to whatever feels like ‘ours’ – and what would that be? The next line seems to indicate we’ve changed, we are no longer natural. ‘We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!’
I walk up Caldy Hill and sit on the bench overlooking the lie of the land and sea; I see a kind of timelessness. I work in my garden and feel the inch of the seasons, fleeting beauty, change. These moments I seem to get my heart back. But in the rush of ‘getting and spending’ my power, my energy, even my money and my stuff – where am I? It might feel good, says Wordsworth, but it is not. Its a boon , a good, but a ‘sordid’ one. And we gave them away! We chose to do it! And now it seems, having given our hearts away, we can’t feel things we might have felt :
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
There is storm in Wordsworth’s mind, the sea, the wind, though the weather seems calm now – the sea and wind are upgathered ‘like sleeping flowers’. We don’t hear the music of storm or peace, ‘we are out of tune;/ It moved us not.’
There’s a grim reality to this recognition: I don’t feel anything.  this is a possible turning point.
Wordsworth turns his mind to times when humans might have believed in different gods, when he might have been felt different – ancient Greece, ancient Greek gods – was it different then? But ‘might’ is a key word.
I ask myself  if our world is any different to Wordsworth’s world,  to Homer’s world. In all worlds, humans may need time to let nothing happen, to hear the sea, to watch the wind.
Cal Newport argues it is important not to check your phone when standing in a queue. Just be bored, do nothing, allow your mind to be unstimulated. Give up the constant getting and spending of energy. Get your heart back.
I’m interested in what people think Wordsworth’s tone, his mood is, in this poem. If we just met him walking across the park -does he seem grumpy, angry with himself/things? I wonder what kind of day he has had to arrive at this place mental place? A day I can imagine all  too well, but then I walk it off. Nature does restore.
But don’t take your phone.

Quietening the noisy years

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Thrush near the back porch, Tyreso 11 April

Yesterday in my reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’  I had got to this point;

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

You can read the whole poem here.  Read it aloud.

I was thinking about our experiences when we are on the very edge of what we can know, how often that must feel like knowing nothing, or being afraid, or at least, to use Wordsworth’s words, like ‘blank misgivings’. A misgiving = a feeling of doubt. Wordsworth’s poem helps me think that doubts are the very thing  I should be most glad of because they  give the clue to ‘something’ else. I am thinking about my own doubt – sorry, endlessly repeated here – about my ability to use the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’.  That inability, which  might be also be identified as under the heading  ‘fallings from us, vanishings’ might be a clue that there is something evading my current language, something my mind does not understand. Hence ‘misgiving’ rather than outright rejection.

Thus, Wordsworth gives thanks,

…for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
He continues;
High instincts before which our mortal Nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

Agh  – so much to  take in, so much to  understand and think through. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how much reading I get done each day, so long as the reading itself is happening. But I am going to try to read this whole section today. Take a breath, it might be a long posting.

The ‘obstinate questionings’ are, he now understands, ‘high instincts’. Brilliant to name them as ‘high’  because of course we usually think of instincts as ‘low’, as ‘animal. These blank misgiving /high instincts are not part of ‘our mortal Nature’, they are from, as he says in the opening stanza, ‘elsewhere’. Wordsworth gets the poem (and me, reading) to a point between experienced knowledge and language. When we give them their due, those ‘blank misgivings’ become or are clues to something else. When we feel that kind of feeling, unnameable, powerful, not in language, bigger than us then it seems our mortal Nature feels worried, small and, in Wordsworth feeling of it, guilty,  as if it had done something wrong. (I’m thinking of the novel The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, a novel profoundly influenced by Wordsworth, I’d guess.  My book of the year last year, terrific story of a man troubled by High Instincts)

High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

I don’t know about the guilty feeling so I’m leaving that aside for the time being, trying to go with the flow of Wordsworth’s mind, not against it. When do I feel like this?  I think,

Gazing into the eyes of a new-born baby.
Looking at the earth from the top of a mountain.
At the edge of the ocean.
When faced with azure blue in sky or water.
Looking at the stars, the moon on a cold clear night.
Flying over Greenland.
Sometimes when walking.
Seeing Earth stir to life after winter.
Gardening or looking closely at plants as they change
When lost in reading  or writing at the edge of my ability.

The feelings of ‘more than normal’ , these ‘high instincts’, are about (for me) the spreading of   – growth of – consciousness to its very limits. You can’t think, you can only experience without language to express the experience.  At such moments that we are operating beyond what the poem calls ‘the light of common day.’ This can be frightening. maybe that is why he says ‘High instincts before which our mortal Nature / Did tremble’?

I’m still hanging back from the word ‘guilty’! And I’m going to go on now…

As I’ve been reading something has been  bothering me. I wanted to know  if Wordsworth was writing from direct experience –   the experience of very young children seems so central to the poem. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Wordsworth had had two children by the time he wrote Intimations (Caroline, born to Annette Vallon, France 1792, and  John, born to Wordsworth’s  wife Mary Hutchinson,  born 1803) I wondered if that 11 year gap between his first child and his second affected his thinking about babies. Certainly possible to imagine that  it made him  concentrate very hard on his little son.

But back to the poem.  Wordsworth picks up again the thread about  what exactly it is that he gives thanks for – not the straightforward happy stuff of childhood, ‘delight and liberty’, but, the sense continues (let’s take a run at it, shall we?)

… for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if Wordsworth stops trying to work it out and accepts that he can’t know what those intimations are  – ‘Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may’ and yet – even if we don’t know what they are, they

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

These moments of intimations of something ‘more than, whatever they are, are now ‘a fountain-light…a master-light’.  They move into  the present tense, indeed beyond that, into what feels a permanent present, with that repetition of ‘are yet’. When you plug into this mode there’s a shift, ‘common day’ is absolutely gone (and yet are we still in it?)

The intimations now seem both the source of light (‘fountain-light’) and also the key to the way we see things (‘master-light of all our seeing’). They feel like parents  – as opposed perhaps to   the ‘homely Nurse’, Earth, who tries to help us settle into her foster-care earlier in the poem.  These original feelings – ‘which, be they what they may’ – ‘uphold us, cherish…’

Yes, I’m thinking it is as if we have something in us, innate, often long-lost, like instinct, that holds on the to the super-natural – not just of Earth – part of us.  These experiences, look after us , cherish … and when we connect  with that innate, instinct part of self, then  ‘our noisy years’ (daily life, common day, all that we do in our busy-ness) are reduced to

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

When I’m reading this, I am trying all the time to think  ‘Do I know this?’ Partly the poem helps me know it  – by sharing its experience, by putting me through it. I’m thinking of times when I feel the ‘noisy years’ are quietened and I feel my life is a moment  ‘in the being of the eternal Silence’. (Is that another word for God? I think it is, and one I am much more easy with using). There are such moments. I recall them now as I write.

I’m going to finish this section.

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if now Wordsworth has  established to himself his own sense of what those intimations are, as if he has cleared a path to them, can hear, feel, see, experience them, and he knows that once he has  experienced this clarity, he’ll not lose it again. These are ‘truths that wake/to perish never.’

Then he remembers ordinary life, the common day (listlessness/mad endeavour/man/boy), feels its threat, is finally untroubled by it  – nothing can now destroy what he knows.

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

We can go to that place, to that experience of more-than-this, we can re-find the source, the sea, and, wonderfully, can ‘in a moment travel thither’.  This seems a very different feeling to the place the poem started, when the pressure of such a move frightened Wordsworth and seemed to hurt him with loss. Remember…

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Yet now the glory is available to him, in a moment, he can experience the original powerful feeling of connection to something/somewhere ‘afar’. He’s got to this by or through the course of the poem – and so  have I, following his movements of thought and feeling.

There’s more for tomorrow but time to stop now.

More Obstinate Questionings

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Moving about in worlds not realised, under pines in Tyreso

In which I continue my daily reading of portions of  Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, which you can read in full here.

Yesterday I read the section beginning;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

Thy Soul’s immensity;

And I continued to try to think again about ‘soul’ and ‘immortality’. While on the walk yesterday, Phil reminded me about the bit in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, where Jack says – I paraphrase – ‘soul is what’s left after everything else is gone.’

In light of that, I wonder about what makes up the essential in a human being and whether the essential comes with us when we are born – certainly in the case of my own children, I felt that to be so.  In myself there seems a core which is not to do with what has happened to me, or what I have become – that is ‘identity’.  But is the core feeling , under identity, under personality,  or that personality is built up from, what I mean by soul?

And, because this poem is asking me to think about it, I also have to ask,  beyond ‘soul’, do I believe a universal presence, in God?  But I cannot use the word ‘God’ in any real, live way, and even ‘believe’ seems the wrong word. Like ‘soul’ it feels overlaid with too many old meanings, other people’s meanings , dead-to-me meanings, to be of any use. Putting it to myself like this – do I believe in God? – I am not thinking of it in a helpful way.

But there is something? Energy, certainly, and the move towards individuation we see in all nature, each living thing always energetically pursuing the shape of itself. Is there intelligence in it? Not  like any human intelligence. Is there love? Yes,  but that may be our part in it, to apprehend love, to know it, to feel it. It seems to me as if the universal force is one of creative, and destructive, energy. And why does it matter to me that humans should try to be good and is there a connection between that and ‘soul’ or ‘God’, those unavailable words?  T.E. Hulme defined Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’ , and I vaguely remember that accusation being put me during my Ph.D. viva thirty odd years ago.  I think the accusation was something like ‘because you don’t believe in God, you see God everywhere in nature and in humans…’  I think my  answer then was ‘Mm… maybe.’

If these questions and bad answers are the wrong way to think of it, what is the right way? The disciplines developed by religions over thousands of years seem useful – prayer, observation, hope. I don’t perform any religious practice. For me walking in the woods, gardening and reading provide ways to do those things. Form doesn’t matter, only what happens within or through the form

But to the poem. The next section is a really long one, and a hard one. There is  one very long sentence. I paste some of it here, but will only get through a few lines;

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

The opening four lines of this section is one of the few bits of poetry I often remember and  say to myself. ‘Embers’ is a disturbing word – heat and death in one. but the oddest thing here is the tense – that ‘nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!’ – as if the thing remembered , the intimation, was even at the time of the experience only passing, merely ‘fugitive; we’re chasing the shadow of a shadow of a feeling.

Wordsworth feels that thinking on these echoes of memories bring him ‘perpetual benediction’   –  constant blessings and the chief of these is not (love Wordsworth’s negatives, always important) practical things that translate into adult life ( into politics, for example, creed of liberty, etc), no, not for these, good as they are and ‘most worthy to be blest’;

Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

This is for me a key moment in the poem and one that  I have been trying to understand and live through during the span of my adult life. The ‘obstinate questionings’ are recognisably human: I’m sure most of us have experienced them. But that Wordsworth would  then go on to elaborate these as ‘ fallings from us, vanishings’ is surprising and  where poetry, not day-to-day autobiography takes hold.

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

How would this experience feel? Do I remember anything like this, or  is the poem making be feel/experience it now as I read? The sense that there are ‘worlds not realised’ and that we might – even now – be ‘moving about in them’ is a wonderful mind-opener, bringing on the very blankness Wordsworth is talking about. What are these ‘worlds’? For me they are new thoughts.  Reading on the edge of understanding, trying to bring  new thoughts into new language, losing myself in a state of creative blankness, that’s one of the most powerful creative experiences I have – making me function – as Wordsworth says when describing mind in The Prelude, as ‘creator and receiver both’. We cease to be human and become ‘Creature’,  creature with misgivings, too, worried, unable to rely on what we knew before, not knowing where we are… yet that place, that experience, is the key one for human creativity. To be lost, uncertain, unknowing is to have the  discovery of worlds all before me.  Why not be afraid? Because surely this is worrying state?

But time is up – let’s leave that thought til tomorrow.